Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Goldberg on Determinism, and Derb's Conservatism

Jonah Goldberg has an excellent post over at the Corner that deftly eviscerates John Derbyshire's genetic determinism. It makes me wonder in what sense Derbyshire is a conservative. In fact, I wonder if Derbyshire is not actually a post-modernist in conservative drag.

Take this article at Taki's magazine linked to from the corner. At first blush, it looks like a strong statement of the "rational right" position on Israel. But look a little closer at Derb's reasons for supporting Israel. He writes of our attachments rippling "out in overlapping chains of diminishing concentric circles: family, extended family, town, state, religion, ethny, nation." The Israelis are closer to us in these concentric rings than say, the Congo, because we share a tradition with them as well as beliefs in things like democracy and the rule of law. Israel is organized on principles that Derb "agrees with", and is "inhabited by people I could leave at ease with."

Derb is such a gifted and smooth writer that it is easy to overlook the precision with which he writes. But it's what Derb has successfully avoided saying that is significant. He hasn't said that the traditions and principles that we share with Israel are objectively true; or reflect a transcendent order that judges not only the USA and Israel, but all nations, including Israel's Arab enemies. No, his point is entirely subjective, and is made in terms of our experienced affinities, severed from any rational foundation (a foundation that, given Derb's genetic determinism, I suspect he does not think exists.) There is a crucial difference between supporting Israel because we "agree" on certain principles that have no further significance than our agreement, and supporting Israel because we recognize that transcendent principles of justice and duty demand that we do.

Really, Derb's support of Israel is post-modern in character. Academic post-modernists "see through" all traditions, deny any rationally knowable transcendent order, and so undermine any reason we might have to prefer our own civilization to another (or even to barbarism.) But if we no longer have reasons, we still have affinities. If there is no reason to prefer one culture to another, then my pre-rational inclinations are elevated to decisive significance. We should support Israel because the Israelis are sort of like us and therefore we have tender feelings for them (or more tender than we do, say, for the Congo.) Derb has simply taken the post-modernist position more seriously than the post-modernists, without the sentimentality.

But it is in no sense "conservative", if by that term we include the notion that there is some good worth preserving; a good that endures across time, space and opinion... in other words, a transcendent good, which is just what the post-modernist denies. The post-modernist can't be a conservative because he allows nothing that might be conserved.

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