Derbyshire Learns What We Cannot Talk About

by Bruce S. Thornton

FrontPage Magazine

Wittgenstein once wrote, “What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” Ex-National Review writer John Derbyshire has just learned the modern American version of this truth. What we Americans cannot talk about is race (except, of course, in the anodyne terms established by political correctness), and woe betide anyone who refuses to pass over this topic in silence.

Derbyshire got in trouble over a piece he posted on the webzine Taki’s Magazine called “The Talk: Nonblack Version.” “The talk” is what many professional blacks call the coming-of-age conversation they have with their kids, the main theme of which seems to be the persistence of racism in American society. Derbyshire’s version focuses on some matters of fact, such as the disproportionate numbers of black criminals, and others of speculation, such as black intelligence inferiority. It was the latter, of course, that got Derbyshire fired by National Review, which called such ideas “nasty and indefensible.”

Surely, our main concern should be whether the notion that blacks aren’t as smart as whites is wrong, and what evidence demonstrates its errors. Putting this speculation out of bounds precludes the airing of the evidence and arguments that explode it. Indeed, this eagerness to demonize and forbid any discussion at all reminds me of the climate change fundamentalists, who simply assert that there is a “consensus” and that anyone who doubts it is anti-science, a “denier,” or in thrall to big oil.

Personally, I have doubts about the whole intelligence and race debate for many reasons. First, I’m not sure that “race” is a useful way to talk about people. The genetic differences accounting for variations in hair texture or skin pigment strike me as trivial compared to the fundamental reality of human beings, which resides not in the material world but in the spiritual, that immortal, free soul created in the likeness of God. More practically, the notion that there are pure “races” seems with some few exceptions to be empirically false. There’s been a lot of genetic mixing and blending going on over the millennia, and we don’t yet understand how genes work, or how they interact over time with each other and various physical and cultural environments, to pinpoint a genetic cause for much of anything. Race, in short, is a pseudo-scientific idea reflecting the fundamentalist materialism that arose in the late 18th century and that attempted to reduce all human reality and behavior to matter and the laws of nature. That’s why the first progressives took to racism so eagerly: it was just another example of how “science” could provide reliable knowledge about people that in turn could be used by experts to arrange society more efficiently.

If one believes in human freedom and free will, then one must reject such materialist determinism that reduces people to mere passive effects of material reality whether environment or genes. More important is not how people look, but how they live, the culture that expresses their sense of human identity, the human mind and imagination, and the way people should treat each other. This is how the ancient Greeks determined inferiority and superiority: not by appearance, but by culture, particularly the political and social orders and the language that expressed both. The Greeks looked down on the Persians, for example, not because the latter were swarthy, but because they lived as slaves subjected to the Great King, rather than as free citizens whose fate was in their own hands. This focus on culture rather than nature, moreover, opened up the possibility of recognizing a universal human identity, for anybody in theory can leave his culture of origin and join another by learning its language and living by its mores and customs. The ancient orator Isocrates around 380 BC expressed this insight about the superiority of culture over nature in explaining human identity: “The name Hellenes [Greeks] suggests no longer a race but an intelligence [or “way of thinking”], and the title Hellene is applied rather to those who share our culture [including “education”] than to those who share a common blood [or “physical nature”].” Indeed, America has proven the truth of this insight, for ideally it is a multi-ethnic nation bound not by “blood” but by the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the culture of freedom they created.

The second category, “intelligence,” is equally reductive. The modern world puts a high value on and rewards a certain kind of intelligence, what Aristotle called nous, the capacity for abstract reasoning needed for science and mathematics. This is the intelligence captured by standardized tests, and of course it is important for a high-tech world. But Aristotle also talks about “practical wisdom,” the sort of thinking ability we need for making our way in a complex world of time, change, uncertainty, and equally complex people. We can break practical wisdom down even further, into social intelligence and moral intelligence, both as, or perhaps more, necessary for civilization as scientific intelligence. Nor do high levels of scientific intelligence mean high levels of the other sorts. (How can you tell if a mathematician is gregarious? He looks at your shoes while he’s talking to you.) More seriously, Germany in the 20th century gives us an example of how destructive the lack of moral intelligence can be no matter how highly developed scientific intelligence is. I think we should be more concerned about recognizing and fostering moral intelligence and practical wisdom, the lack of which lies behind much of the progressive mischief transforming America for the worse.

No doubt some will find my opinions a cowardly evasion of reality, while others will see them as an apology for racism. But the main issue should be carrying on the debate, not monitoring our adherence to shibboleths. Rather than banishing the issues Derbyshire raised, we should bring them out into the open, let people make the case one way or the other, and judge the evidence and arguments. That’s how an open, free society is supposed to work. As we’ve heard repeatedly, sunlight is the best disinfectant of bad ideas. Keeping them hidden or pretending they’ve been definitively refuted without making an argument or marshaling evidence only leaves such ideas to fester in the darkness.

©2012 Bruce S. Thornton

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