»  National Review Online

June 7th-8th, 2006

  Unreason

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•  John Derbyshire vs. pro-lifers

by Ramesh Ponnuru

John Derbyshire has written a long attack on pro-lifers, my book, and me. Opening lines: "Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind." It is, I suppose, to Derbyshire's credit that he does not pretend to be "personally opposed" to abortion or euthanasia, but rather straightforwardly argues for them.

He does, however, get some of his facts wrong. He writes: "Some people would say that a writer who refers to embryos as 'the young,' to Mrs. Schiavo as 'disabled,' or to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment as having carefully pondered its implications for abortion, is just plain dishonest." Derbyshire is making three accusations here, and none of them is true. Although it might be reasonable to refer to embryos as "the young," depending on the context, I don't do it in The Party of Death. I don't refer to Mrs. Schiavo as "disabled," although I quote someone else who does. I certainly don't maintain that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment "carefully pondered" its implications for abortion, or pondered them at all. Other than that, the sentence is fine. Derbyshire's passage on embryonic-stem-cell research is similarly sloppy.

Derbyshire also makes some peculiar judgments. Derbyshire believes that the people who opposed the starvation of Terri Schiavo were all insane — his denunciation of us is the most entertainingly florid section of the review — and engaged in "monstrous character assassination of Michael Schiavo." There were no excesses, apparently, on the other side. That's his view, and he's entitled to it. But so committed is Derbyshire to the pro-Michael Schiavo version of this story that he condemns me for not making every point that could be made in his defense. When I make a specific criticism of pro-lifers' treatment of Mr. Schiavo, he condemns me for not going far enough. Indeed, he portrays me as Stalinist whitewashing pro-lifers' record ("Here the author sounds like nothing so much as a Soviet Communist Party apparatchik"). He concludes: "Michael Schiavo is a good man criminally traduced by brutal, unprincipled RTL fanatics, from whose number, on the evidence of this chapter, Ponnuru cannot with certainty be excluded." That man is a fanatic; he disagrees with me.

Derbyshire goes on to speculate about my religion and my "disingenuous" treatment of it. "Party of Death is obviously inspired by religious belief." I have made a show of reasoning, but my conclusions have all rather conveniently lined up with the teachings of my church. "Protestations like Ponnuru's, that the movement is not innately religious at all, should in fact be viewed with suspicion, as tactical attempts to inoculate RTL against courtroom defeats on church-state grounds." I'm not sure what makes Derbyshire so confident that he knows what inspires me. For the record, my views on abortion have not changed since I was an agnostic.

It is true that I am a Catholic. It is also true that I believe that my church's teaching on abortion is reasonable, sound, and correct. It is because I came to believe that Catholicism is true, after all, that I became a Catholic. If I didn't believe Catholic teachings were true, I wouldn't be a Catholic. So what? With this move, Derbyshire hasn't discredited the soundness or reasonableness of my conclusions or of my method of reaching them. He has shown only that he has a weakness for the cleverly worded fallacy, or a fideistic understanding of religion.

Derbyshire writes: "The open glee with which pro-lifers greeted the recent elevation of two practicing Roman Catholics to the U.S. Supreme Court suggests that however much Ramesh Ponnuru might affirm the not-essentially-religious nature of the RTL thingummy, pro-lifers in general see matters otherwise." Do pro-lifers think that serious Catholics are more likely to vote against Roe than other people? Of course we do. Who denies that? Certainly not me; I said as much during the confirmation hearings of both men. But note that most "pro-lifers" were gleeful, not just the Catholics among them; and note that most of those people supported the Bork nomination back in 1987, when Bork was not religious.

Derbyshire wants to exclude both religion and reason as guides to the moral truth about abortion, euthanasia, and related issues. In their place he exalts feelings, and criticizes me as "creepy," "frigid," "pitiless," "inhuman," and, worst, an "intellectual," for not going along. This is the anti-intellectual core of his essay. (There is also a lot of piling on of rhetoric. "For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality, that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years." Gaseous is just the right word for this sort of logorrhea.) "America would be a happier and freer nation if the accursed intellectuals would just leave us alone with our lives, our blunders, our tragedies, and our deaths."

The state cannot "leave us alone" in deciding under what circumstances to kill one another. There have to be rules, and we have to find some basis for figuring out what they should be. The notion that everyone's natural feelings lead to support of abortion and euthanasia, and that intellectuals have recently been trying to overcome these natural inclinations, is preposterous — something, indeed, that only an intellectual could believe. That abortion was a crime used to be something nearly universally accepted, and felt. It took, among other things, a lot of intellectual work to change that. Many people changed their feelings in response to new ideas, and new situations partly created by those ideas. (And some people changed their ideas based on their feelings.) How should we feel about abortion? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we feel less appalled by it than we used to? These are intelligible questions. You don't have to have a high estimate of "the power of reason in human affairs" to think that the enterprise of reasoning about these matters should not be dismissed.

It is interesting — and of course gratifying — that the two leading criticisms of my book (Peter Berkowitz's thoughtful review in the Wall Street Journal and Derbyshire's intemperate essay) both attempt an escape from reason. This is nihilism. It is also laziness.

•  Response to Ramesh

by John Derbyshire

Since my review of Ramesh Ponnuru's book Party of Death appeared last week, I have been buttonholed — and last night, at a big gathering of conservatives, wellnigh mobbed — by people asking me whether I was not concerned that Ramesh might be seriously bent out of shape by the negative remarks in my review. (I have not yet been asked if Ramesh would be bent back into shape by the many positive remarks.) My stock reply has been: "Ramesh is a big boy, a very smart boy, and he's been round the block a few times. He can take care of himself pretty well."

So it has proved. Ramesh has a spirited response up on NRO today, giving quite as good as he got — and then some, I have an uncomfortable suspicion. Plainly we could go on rebutting and counter-rebutting indefinitely, until the referee parted us. I don't myself much feel like doing this, for reasons which I hope will emerge from what follows.

From a coldly commercial point of view, there is actually a case for continuing the fight. When Ramesh and I had a brief round of fisticuffs on The Corner last year, at the time of Mrs Schiavo's death, I got numerous reader emails to the effect: "This is great! We don't see enough of this from you guys!" It was, in fact, the memory of that, of the vitality boost Ramesh & I unwittingly (we were both just speaking our minds, with no particular thought of treating Corner readers to pugilistic thrills) gave to The Corner at that time, that helped dispel my doubts about reviewing P.o.D.

And doubts I had. Reviewing a colleague's book is never a really brilliant idea, unless you are a swooning fan. My motivations for doing that review of P.o.D. were: (1) To help out the New English Review people with their venture in web journalism. They are personal friends, and I thought a controversial review might get them some readers. I hope it has. (2) Via the same controversy, to make a bit of noise on behalf of Ramesh's book, the MSM neglect of which is — as I said in my review — shameful. (Though I wrote my review before the WSJ published theirs.) Good writing, including good polemical writing, should always get noticed. I don't know if Ramesh, or his agent or editor, or any of his fans, has tracked the Amazon sales progress of P.o.D. this past few days, If anyone has, I'd be interested to know the results. "There is no such thing as bad publicity" is a pretty good rule in cases like this. And (3) to perk up The Corner a bit. No offense to anyone at all, and indeed I write as a mid-level and pretty steady Corner contributor myself, but we go through some dull patches now & then. So readers tell me.

On reflection, I must say, I wish my doubts had prevailed. There is a matter of fine judgment here, and I now think I got it wrong. On the one hand, there's collegiality: On the other, spirited controversy.

Collegiality:  We at NR are all involved in the same enterprise, we all sink or swim with that enterprise, and the ordinary conflicts and abrasions that occur among any group of opinionated people need to be watched, managed, and to some degree suppressed in the interest of keeping the thing afloat. We should, to Buckleyize the point, eschew rancor. I honestly thought, and still think, I did so eschew; and in this connection, I believe that the construction Ramesh has put on those parts of my review he found most obnoxious, will not be supported by a fair-minded reader — nor even, I hope, by Ramesh himself, if he re-reads them with a cold eye.

Controversy:  The first question I ever asked of the National Review editors, over lunch in a Thai restaurant on Third Avenue some years ago, when they first recruited me into the family, was: How strict is the "line" at NR? They replied that there was really no "line," that all major strains of modern American conservatism were represented, the magazine's character being determined by the proportions of their representation. I have found this to be true. This gives us scope for disagreement; and from its earliest days NR has been enlivened by internal disagreements. "Life" issues should by no means be exempt from such disagreement. Lots of conservatives see nothing much wrong with abortion or euthanasia. One of the two or three greatest conservatives of my lifetime has been Margaret Thatcher, a firm supporter of abortion rights. Similarly, plenty of conservatives, including this one, would be delighted to see Rudy Giuliani's name on a presidential ballot. Disagreements over "life" issues are a fundamental part of the conservative conversation.

Still, I now wish I had let collegiality trump controversy. The main reason I wish this is, that Ramesh is much more bent out of shape than I anticipated he would be. I don't know why I misjudged this (I suspect it is something to do with my style — see below), and I regret having done so. I like and admire Ramesh tremendously as a person, and would be very sorry to think we were estranged. Not that such things don't inevitably happen from time to time in the course of life and work, but Ramesh is one of the last people I would wish it to happen with. I admire his intellect very much (though see below again), and his swift wit even a little more. A National Review editorial meeting at which Ramesh is present has twice as many laughs as one that doesn't — and we laugh a lot at the dullest of times.

Having decided to do the review, though, I did it as fairly as I could, going to some pains to praise the things I liked about P.o.D. The style of the review is just mine, and I shall not apologize for it. If it's sometimes florid and a bit mannered, well, that's how I write, and I'm too old to change my ways. I understand a lot of people — obviously including Ramesh — don't like it, but that is always the case with a writer's style. There isn't anything to be done about it. A lot of readers do like my style, and write to tell me so (thank you!) That's how it goes with writing.

To return to the point about Ramesh's intellect: Yes, there is a deep difference of temperament here. Ramesh really is an intellectual, and I will admit, grudgingly, that the Right needs some intellectuals. I am not an intellectual, as I have said many times. Here, for instance:

I am not really an intellectual. Philosophy puts me to sleep, I can't read it. I keep trying Roger Scruton's books, but I just can't get past page 30. I'm really not very good at connected thinking, and work mostly from impressions. The upside of this is that most people are the same as me, so lots of readers see their own thought processes reflected in mine, and they like that. The downside is that I nurse a nagging sense of inferiority towards people who really have read all the deep-brow stuff, thought everything through and made a coherent belief-system out of it in their heads.

That "nagging sense of inferiority" I nurse certainly embraces Ramesh. The effect on my self-esteem, however, is wonderfully slight, since I have read lots of 20th-century history and know what a pig's ear intellectuals always make of things when they get their hands on the levers of power. When I feel an intellectual mood coming over me, I go and read (or write — did you think I was going to get through this without plugging MY book?) some math, the only form of intellection that is perfectly harmless. I hope it won't be thought immodest if I say that I really believe that an un-intellectual — all right, anti-intellectual — voice like mine has a place in the conservative conversation too.

So far as Ramesh's particular points are concerned, I urge interested readers to buy his book, read my review, and make up their own minds. (Though I can't resist helping out a little: "abortion is a terrible act of violence against the young" is on page 2; "evidence that the ratifiers [all right, all right, I said 'Framers' in my review] of the Fourteenth Amendment considered the unborn to be 'persons' worthy of protection …" is on page 16.) I especially urge them to buy Ramesh's book. It is, to quote from my review, "an exceptionally fine piece of polemical writing." Oh, and, to quote again from my review: "the title is perfect — just the one I would have chosen myself in Ponnuru's place." I think that so far Ramesh and I are the only people who like that title. At least we agree on something.

And if it's argument you're wanting, Ross Douthat has a pretty good thread going here, prefaced with some remarks about myself that struck me as so creepily accurate I had to think hard to come up with any quibbles (but eventually did so — scroll down through the comments a bit).

[After reading that response, in which I attempted to pour oil on the troubled waters, Ramesh sent a posting to The Corner, National Review Online's group blog, tossing a lighted match onto my oil. At that point, I thought it best to retreat into silence. There were no further exchanges.]