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Down With Happy Talk

We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism
By John Derbyshire
(Crown Forum, 261 pages, $26)

“Civilization is at a crossroads,” wrote Woody Allen, back when he was funny. “One road leads to misery and devastation, the other to total destruction.” Allen was going for a laugh, but conservatives should take this sort of thing seriously, suggests John Derbyshire, author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. “The proper outlook of conservatives…is a pessimistic one,” he writes, “at least as far as the things of this world are concerned.”

Derbyshire’s is one of many prescriptive tracts born out of the 2008 GOP losses to the “Politics of Hope” (David Frum’s Comeback, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s and Grand New Party also come to mind). While Doomed may be the least useful as far as developing a winning political strategy (he suggest conservatives adopt the “politics of despair”), it is by far the more enjoyable read.

It turns out we are doomed because too many conservatives have bought into “smiley-face schemes of human improvement,” i.e., the mindset that man is perfectible, and that if we only adopt the right social programs and spend enough money and outlaw guns and educate our young a certain way and leave the rest to intellectuals and social engineers, we can create a more perfect union on the order of Cuba and Berkeley, CA.

Conservatives are not immune from this fashionable nonsense. Derbyshire points to the Bush Doctrine, in particular:

So the survival of liberty Americans enjoy, and which I personally take as the foundation of my own conservatism, depends on what happens in Albania, Bangladesh, and Cameroon? Over which we have how much control? How did liberty survive in our land for two and a quarter centuries while most of the rest of the world was sunk in despotism?

The reality is quite the opposite. Our 18th century progenitors (Adams, Jefferson) were well aware that this transitory world is but a vale of tears, where all men have their price, where every politician must be supposed to be a knave, where the greatest part of men are gross, and, to quote the great pessimist Karl Popper, any “attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.”

Indeed, conservatism has long had a strong streak of pessimism, from Hobbes and Burke, through Lord Salisbury and Calvin Coolidge. Not surprisingly, Derbyshire proffers Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan as an ideal contemporary model to emulate. Despite his sunny disposition, Reagan was no Pollyanna. He surveyed his times with a cold, realistic eye. He knew that Big Government was the problem, not the solution, and that nation building in Lebanon was bound to fail. He saw clearly that the Soviet Union was an evil empire, and he was free and easy with his veto pen.

Derbyshire accuses conservatives of infidelity, of hanging out with the wrong crowd, and of being influenced by the wrong sort of people. Chief among conservative sins are blithely signing on to diversity ideology, being complicit in the expansion of the federal government, doing little to stem the degradation of our culture and the rising tide of feminism, becoming invested in wrongheaded educational theories, encouraging Third World immigration, and acquiescing to policies of massive spending and unsustainable debt. Rather than profound self-criticism and a return to first principles, conservatives have clung to a curious notion about American Exceptionalism, which has become a lazy excuse for the status quo.

DERBYSHIRE IS that rare specimen, an irreligious conservative, and he is unafraid to say so, whatever the cost. Like that other great pessimist, H.L. Mencken, he is not at all certain that religion makes us better people. Derbyshire, however, is no New Atheist who makes a name belittling believers. Rather he longs for the Old Time Religion, and idealizes New England’s Calvinist Orthodoxy and its fabled “Five Points,” which insisted that man’s natural condition was total depravity, that salvation was beyond mortal striving, that grace was predestined only for a few, that most mortals were condemned to suffer eternal damnation, and no earthly effort could save them.” None of this feel-good religion for Derb.

As the original metrocon, Derbyshire has the cheek to say that he (like most conservative intellectuals) is more comfortable among “New York liberals” than among “red-state Evangelicals.” (Hell, I may as well come out too.) Of course, liberals, too, are pessimistic about some things. Aren’t they forever wringing their hands over big business, straight white men, sexism, poverty, racism, global warming, nuclear everything, war? This is bogus pessimism, says the author. Liberals are confident that they can overcome flawed human nature, and create a New Man and a New Society, just as soon as Barack Obama hits his stride. 

If all this sounds hopeless, that’s because it is. While there are things we could do to save the situation, Derbyshire says, we won’t do any of them, because we have sunk into a collective mindset that won’t let us.

But even a book about the importance of pessimism must today end on a high note. And while Derbyshire tries gallantly, he can’t quite pull off the happy ending. His advice: “Brace yourself to ride out misfortunes, and find happiness in small pastimes and the company of friends,” which sounds rather like Monty Python’s answer as to the Meaning of Life. Ultimately, however, it is probably the best advice one can give to such a hopelessly metaphysical problem. As for me, I can think of no better pastime in which to find happiness than to read this very gloomy and very funny book.

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