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Review of Derbyshire’s Review of Party of Death

John on June 7, 2006 at 3:26 pm

NRO author John Derbyshire has a lot going for him. He’s brilliant, for one, gifted as a mathemetician and as a writer. He is also the only member of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy ever to appear in a film with Bruce Lee.

In any case, among Derb’s (as Corner regulars and readers know him) many gifts is a knack for stirring the hornet’s nest. Most recently he wrote a truly obnoxious review of fellow NRO regular Ramesh Ponnuru’s latest book The Party of Death. Derb’s carefully worded review of the book is gradually overwhelmed by his own condescending tone. He bashes, berates and finally evinces a kind of sublimated desperation to dismiss the whole thing from consciousness (both the public kind and his own).

The review ends, tellingly, with a long discussion of Natural Law, Reason and the essentially Christian nature of Right to Life beliefs. It is here that the final cause of Derb’s lengthy attack comes into view. Derb, you see, is from the Libertarian branch of conservatism. He views religion with wary eyes and could accurately be described as a “live and let live” atheist. Thus, in the last paragraph — speaking of divergent views regarding euthanasia — he writes:

It depends what you look for from life, and from the great cold cosmos—as I said, just a matter of temperament, really.

Whether he knows it or not (I suspect he doesn’t, at least not fully) this “matter of temperament” is the core, almost the only, issue in his whole argument with the book. It does indeed all depend on one’s ultimate views, or what Christian philosopher Roy Clouser would call “divinity beliefs.” The specific one outlined by Derb in this sentence (i.e. “the great cold cosmos”) is materialism. And of course, his entire argument regarding life issues as presented in the review is perfectly consistent with such a view. After all, what possible conclusion can one come to about people who believe embryos require protection under law than just this: they are cultists. They are believers in something which does not exist.

Ironically, Derb spends several paragraphs deriding Ponnuru’s use of reason to support his underlying religious beliefs:

Party of Death is obviously inspired by religious belief. The philosophical passages strictly follow the Golden Rule of religious apologetics, which is: The conclusion is known in advance, and the task of the intellectual is to erect supporting arguments. It would be an astounding thing, just from a statistical point of view, if, after conducting a rigorous open-ended inquiry from philosophical first principles, our author came to conclusions precisely congruent with the dogmas of the church in which he himself is a communicant. Yet that is the case, very nearly, with Party of Death. Remarkable!

Yet the exact same argument could be turned on Derb himself. Materialism is an ultimate belief about what is real, one that inevitably results in subsequent beliefs about what is true, what is valuable and how one should behave. In this way, it is no less “controlling” of one’s perspective than Roman Cathlicism. This review really boils down to a materialist critiquing a Christian monotheist for doing precisely what he himself is doing throughout the review. In the end, Derb’s view of human life issues turns out to be precisely congruent with his view of human existence in an uncaring universe. Remarkable, indeed!

As a frequent Corner reader, I also can’t help but notice that this review may have a more proximate cause. A few months ago, Derb wrote some rather brusque things about Gertrude Himmelfarb. Ramesh came to her defense in a way that seemed to catch Derb off guard. Derb went silent after that for a few days, but ever since has been posting an inordinate number of attacks on intelligent design in The Corner. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this review is a case of deffered payback. Nothing wrong with payback of course, at least not if you’re a confirmed materialist.

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