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Highest common denominator: An interview with John Derbyshire

By Bernard Chapin
web posted May 19, 2003

John Derbyshire is a Contributing Editor at the National Review and he has produced a great many essays for the magazine in his time there. He can be found online as well at www.nationalreview.com where he has regular features and a monthly diary blog.

These are excited times for him as he has just released a brand new book, Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann & the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. In this book he reportedly does the impossible by making higher level mathematics interesting to the layman. Such an achievement is certainly far beyond the skills of the average technical writer.

Johnn DerbyshireDerbyshire has seemingly endless interests. His is a fertile mind and he has been quite prolific. He arranged, selected and penned an introduction for a compendium of poems called 36 Great American Poems. He also is a novelist. One of his novels, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, possesses perhaps the perfect conservative title. Another novel, Fire from the Sun, is also available and was released in 2001.

John Derbyshire is a writer who never crosses the line into becoming a polemicist. His words are stated in a genial voice of reason. The one quality that sets him apart from his peers is his overwhelming sincerity. It comes through in just about everything that he publishes. Regardless of the topic and whether one agrees or disagrees with him, the reader becomes uniquely aware that this is a man expressing a genuinely honest opinion. There's no spin in the output of John Derbyshire.

He certainly does not suffer from taking himself too seriously. As he noted on his website regarding his letters to the editor "I must have published hundreds of specimens of this low and embarrassing genre." So let us now hear from this Renaissance man in another enterstageright.com exclusive interview.

BC: Mr. Derbyshire, you are Contributing Editor at National Review (NR), and perhaps a good question to start with is how do you feel about the current intraconservative battle between the neo-conservatives and the paleo-conservatives? Do you side with NR's David Frum on this issue? How much can this squabble affect the strength of the conservative movement?

JD: I must say, with no prejudice to David, I have a temperamental distaste for that sort of thing. I spent my student days trying to associate with Trotskyists. I say "trying" because I could never keep up with their petty feuds, their constant splitting and re-forming, what I call the "pond life" aspect of political activity. No sooner would a group attain some kind of coherence than a minority faction in the group would decide that the group's ideology was insufficiently pure, and would split off to start a group of their own. I found myself thinking that if this is politics, I would rather have nothing to do with it. Of course that is not mainstream politics, it is only fringe politics - Britain never did get a Trotskyist prime minister. It left me, though, with a powerful aversion to factionalism of all kinds.

Now of course David has a point that needed making. There actually are some people out there on the fringes of conservatism whose personal obsessions have led them into positions that, I agree, can be fairly described as un-, or even anti-patriotic. Anti-semitism is also a constant temptation for conservatives of a certain kind, not necessarily the unpatriotic kind. As a romantic lover of America and a strong philosemite, I don't want to share the conservative movement with anti-patriots or anti-semites. And I quite see the logic of Bill Buckley's argument, which he has recently made the basis of a fascinating novel, that what he calls "exercises in exclusion" are from time to time necessary in order to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of the conservative movement, or any other movement. Movements have to be policed; and policing is bound to be, to some degree, unpleasant and unsightly work.

Politics is, always has been, and always will be infested with cranks and monomaniacs of various kinds. You can never entirely get rid of them, but those you can't get rid of, you need to keep in the shadows, and not let the broad public get the impression that they speak for the movement. That is the policing, the "exercises in exclusion," that Bill Buckley talks about.

There is a difference, however, between a policeman and a witch-hunter. Conservatism is not such a great force in American life that we can afford to exclude willy-nilly large groups of honest, patriotic conservatives whom we disagree with about some issue or other. For example: I read both the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page, which favors open immigration, and also Peter Brimelow's excellent VDARE website, which is strongly immigration-restrictionist. I think they are both important conservative voices, though personally I agree with the second much more than the first. I should hate to see either become the subject of an "exercise in exclusion."

I think ultimately it's a question of tone and attitude. One thing I have always loved about NR is that it is a good-natured magazine. I have seen several twists and turns in the policy line at NR since I started reading it in the late 1970s, but it has always kept that agreeable, tolerant, gentlemanly tone, and as long as it keeps it, I shall be an NR reader (and, I hope, contributor). The tone comes, of course, from the personality of the founder, Bill Buckley, who is one of the most good-natured men I have ever met - a true American gentleman.

From that point of view, David's piece seems to me to be on the very edge, though I think not over it. I mean, it is just within the boundaries of what I want to read in NR, speaking as a reader of a quarter century's standing who strongly identifies with the NR ethos. And I should not want to read too many pieces of that kind - one every five years or so would be just about right, I think.

As I began by saying, I have a temperamental distaste for that sort of thing - for seeing the policeman swing his nightstick. I suppose it has to be swung now and then, though; and David, whom I admire as a talented and imaginative writer, is a good person to swing it.

BC: I guess it's not "your father's NR" anymore. There have been accusations from some that the quality of National Review has changed in recent years. Do you think that the magazine has recently made a shift to the right or the left on the political spectrum? How would you describe NR's weltanschauung (rightist-libertarian, conservative, new school conservative, etc)? It seems to be that it clearly supports diverse views though, as Mark Helprin's recent piece criticizing the war suggests.

JD: I had better preface what I say with the following disclaimer: I am not a NR staffer, only a "contributing editor," paid by the piece. I therefore do not speak for NR in any official way, and what I say here, I say as a long-time reader and lover of NR, but still as an outsider.

Any magazine that has been around for 48 years must face the problem that a lot of its most dedicated and loyal readership is rather old. The magazine needs to keep the loyalty of these readers for reasons both moral and financial; yet it must also be constantly trying to get new readers - the younger the better, so that they too will get the NR habit and join the long-term core readership.

In America today this is a difficult balancing act, because very fundamental shifts of outlook have occurred in the past 48 years, among conservatives as much as - perhaps even more than - elsewhere. I frequently meet college students who tell me they are conservative, who have all the attributes of what seems to me a broadly conservative outlook on life and society, who want to read conservative publications... yet who have a deep dislike of many of the topics - not just the point of view, the actual topics - that interest older readers.

This shows up most especially in the area of race, and the penumbra of issues - immigration, for instance, or crime-fighting - that are associated with it. The kind of thoughtful and intelligent young people that NR would like to have as readers understand that there are problems and absurdities connected with race in our public life, and are happy to hear arguments pro and con about racial profiling, affirmative action, and so on. They laugh with us when we lampoon the more outrageous kind of black race hustler - a Sharpton, a Farrakhan, a Johnny Cochran. They are, however, determined to make the multiracial society work, they believe it can be made to work in spite of the hustlers and liberal guilt-mongers, and they are unwilling to read, say, or think anything that could be construed as unkind towards people of other races. The pessimism and cynicism on this topic that you rather commonly find among conservatives - including NR readers - born in 1930, or even 1950, are profoundly unappetizing to these younger conservatives.

The editors of the magazine have to square this circle, and it ain't easy. One simple way to do it is to rule certain topics out of bounds. This is unsatisfactory in all sorts of ways, and opens the magazine up to accusations of blandness, or of having moved away from "true" conservatism (there are as many opinions about what that means as there are conservatives!) but I think it can't be avoided. After all, no magazine can talk about everything, and there are plenty of other outlets for views you won't find in NR. Given the constraints I have just sketched out, I must say I think the range of views in NR is surprisingly broad, and the balance very well managed.

BC: You write a great many articles for NR and several other publications but you also just finished a book, Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann & the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. Is it difficult to market a book about mathematics to the population in general? Also, how's the book doing?

Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann & the Greatest Unsolved Problem in MathematicsJD: Yes, very difficult! And I really have no idea how the book is doing. You don't really get a feel for how a book is doing until it's been on the market for several months. My Amazon sales rankings are surprisingly good; but that is a very volatile measure. From the point of view of a book's being successful, it is probably better to hang around in the 2,000-5,000 range of Amazon rankings for a couple of years, than to spend a few weeks in the low hundreds.

I must add here, though, a work of thanks - of deep gratitude, in fact - to the apparently (I am going here on the basis of e-mails received and people met at book-signing events) large number of NR and NRO readers who have bought my book not because they are keen on math but just because they like my columns and postings. God bless those people. I hope they will all get something out of my book; and I hope that some large minority of them will be turned on to math by reading it, to their own surprise!

BC: I seem to recall that another book about this specialized topic came out at exactly the same time. For the readers who might not be familiar with the story, how did the revelation that another author was writing about the same subject matter affect your production of the work?

JD: Two other books! One is Kenneth Sabbagh's The Riemann Hypothesis, the other Marcus du Sautoy's The Music of the Primes. We knew about du Sautoy's book early on. My literary agent, when he is trying to place a book proposal, tackles the publishing industry from the top down, so Harper Collins was one of the first publishers he tried, in summer of 2000. They politely told us they had already signed up du Sautoy and gave us the title - from which I could pretty much tell what the book was about, and could even guess what approach the author was taking. Sabbagh's book I heard about later and didn't know much about, and in fact still haven't read.

The main effect of knowing about these other books - especially du Sautoy's, which had a lead of over a year on us (Prime Obsession did not get placed with Joseph Henry Press until the fall of 2001) - was to make my book a crash project. It started out as a 10-page proposal, which I had pretty much forgotten about by the time we placed the book, over a year later. So I had to write a 400-page book about an advanced mathematical topic, in a way that would appeal to general readers, in 8 months from a standing start, while holding on to my day job as an opinion journalist. I feel immensely pleased with myself that I managed to accomplish this. It was tough. The book is unsatisfactory in some ways because of being written under pressure like that, but on the whole I am satisfied with it.

BC: Many may not be aware that you are originally from England. I have read much about the current state of Albion. The essayist Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels) has addressed the decline of law and order within the nation. With small children at home, are you now glad more than ever to be in America? What are your feelings about England today?

JD: I have always felt that I was not really meant to be English, that some sort of mistake was made. I am not in tune with any of the characteristically English obsessions. I can't stand soccer or cricket, like my beer chilled, am unsentimental about animals, have no interest in the doings of royalty, and get hay fever at the mere sight of a thatched cottage. Consequently, I have spent very little of my adult life in England, and am probably not a good person to go to for opinions about the place.

The broad difference between traditional-English and traditional-American society was that the first depended much more on authority than the second. Americans are, as de Tocqueville and Dickens and everyone else noticed, an amazingly self-reliant people. The general collapse of authority, and of respect for authority, that occurred all over the western world from the 1960s on, therefore caused much more damage in England than here. The degradation and nihilism that Dalrymple writes about are very real and widespread, though one must always remember that the man works in a prison.

There are things about contemporary English life that I like, though; mostly things that are present because the old English ideals of duty, rank, service, decency, patriotism and mutual obligation have not yet been altogether killed off - though not for want of trying on the part of the intellectual elites. The BBC, for example, though heavily infiltrated by the fascist Left, still has pockets of the old gentility (consult your dictionary, please) in Radio 3 and Radio 4. The old English skepticism towards grand intellectual schemes, the faith in common sense and practicality, the tolerance for human oddity, the love of irony and clever rhetorical tropes, can still be found in definitely un-American quantities. And the English have absolutely the best crosswords.

So far as child-raising is concerned, the main difference between the two countries is in the number of single-sex schools - ones, I mean, that are accessible to people of middle income - that are present in England. I think mixed-sex schooling is a bad idea, for both social and academic reasons. On the other hand, American kids have better manners than their English coevals (as, come to think of it, do American adults), so presumably we are doing something right here.

BC: As far as England's politics go, are the Tories finished? Can this party of Thatcher rise again? If not, is there any chance for a new conservative party to rise in England and positively influence the country and put it in the right direction?

JD: Of course the Tories are not finished. They are in the doldrums, and have not found an effective way to address the electorate, but that happens to political parties from time to time - it happened to the Labour Party in a big way in the 1980s. Political parties only wither and die when great demographic or constitutional upheavals take place, as with the decline of the Liberal Party in the early 20th century. Much more often they rise to the occasion, changing themselves to appeal successfully to a changed electorate.

Somehow or other the Tories will find a new synthesis, one that incorporates traditional Tory values - fiscal restraint, wariness of major constitutional rearrangements, aversion to schemes of social engineering and moralistic Nanny State prohibitions, strong attachment to national sovereignty, and so on. (I would add: a respect for local and municipal arrangements over centralized government - the "principle of subsidiarity" - though I do acknowledge that the greatest enemy of that particular principle in late-20th-century England, pre-Blair, was Margaret Thatcher.) To bring this new synthesis about, two things will be required: (1) imaginative and authoritative party leadership, and (2) the opening up of serious cracks in the Blair project. The second is already happening; the first, unfortunately, is in the lap of the Gods.

BC: You are certainly a true Renaissance man. Others might not know of your expertise regarding China. Is China slowly but surely becoming a freer and better place in which to live? I was surprised to hear how many automobiles the Chinese are importing at present. Will the free market's success delegitimize the totalitarian structure of the government? Might we see a political implosion like with the Soviet Union?

JD: The only important question about China is what I call the "midwife" one. Can a secretive, authoritarian, corrupt, self-serving party with a disgraceful past serve as the midwife for a genuinely liberal-constitutional order? Most of my Chinese friends believe it can, and Fareed Zakaria, whose new book I have just been reading, agrees. "Sure," these optimists say, "the communists are awful. China is still a poor and backward country, though. It needs an authoritarian dictatorship to get it through the transition to a more modern kind of society, just as Taiwan and South Korea did. Once they are over that hump, democracy will emerge. Don't worry about the communists. In 10 or 15 years they'll be gone."

There is some merit in that argument. For example, one imperative for China right now is to dismantle the old "state-owned industries," the Soviet-style industrial behemoths producing goods nobody wants to buy. This would be impossible under an electoral democracy, at any rate without serious social disorder. There are just too many people dependent on those industries. A reform like that has to be pushed through by major force - though, as a matter of fact, the communists have not yet summoned up the guts to do it!

On the other hand, China is not Taiwan or South Korea. It is a much bigger country, with much greater disparities between large regions where things are pretty good, and large regions where things are terrible. It is also an empire, with Chinese troops and secret police garrisoning vast areas - half the territory of the "People's Republic"! - that are not really Chinese, and whose base populations simmer with religious and ethnic resentments, and with the memories of horrible atrocities against them and their ways of life in the recent past.

Worst and most dismaying of all, China is a country suffused with the most primitive, brutish and atavistic kind of chauvinism - a poisonous mix of resentment against past wrongs both real and imagined, an angry racism, and a belligerent assertion of China's right to do anything she damn well feels like doing, and can get away with.

Economics isn't everything. Mentality counts for something. The current national mentality of China - carefully cultivated by the Communists, of course, as a prop for their own legitimacy, but now out of their control like Frankenstein's monster - hovers on the edge of psychopathology, and seems to get worse with each rising generation. On some important issues, including relations with the U.S.A., the Chinese communist leadership is probably more liberal than the Chinese people, certainly than the young urban intellectuals I myself have had angry shouting matches with.

I got my education as a China-watcher from the old China hands of Hong Kong, who were uniformly pessimistic. Their entire outlook could be summed up as: "Never, never, never be optimistic about China. China will always break your heart." I had not fully internalized that outlook when 1989 came along, and I was optimistic that the student movement might effect real political change. It didn't, of course, and I resolved that I would never again be caught out being optimistic about China.

With that attitude, I have been resisting the "midwife" argument. I wouldn't rule it out, though, and it is a possible future for China. Yes, life in China is much freer and better now that 20, or even 10 years ago. Yes, China might follow the path of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore. I would rate the probability at no better than 20 percent, though. Other, much uglier futures - some of them ugly only for the Chinese themselves, some ugly for the whole world - are, in my opinion, more probable. So count me a China pessimist.

A hundred years ago Sun Yat-sen, who understood his countrymen very well indeed, identified three areas in which the Chinese needed to change to a modern mentality: economics, politics, and the National Question. The first change has been pretty well accomplished, and the second could indeed follow, on the "midwife" principle. The third change, however, has not taken place. If anything, the Chinese have gone backward in the ability to see themselves as a nation in a world of nation-states. Far from having escaped from the imperial-civilizational mentality, they are sunk in it deeper than ever.

The contradictions inherent in the National Question could destroy all China's progress. They could, in fact, destroy the world. The really bad news is that there is probably nothing at all we can do about this, except to keep yelling in their ears. Events in China have never followed any foreigner's script, and when foreigners have tried to push China in any particular direction, China has generally veered off at right angles, like a gyroscope.

BC: You write quite often for The New Criterion which is one of the finest publications in the world (in the opinion of this writer) but what is it about the journal that causes it to be so highly esteemed? I just read that Partisan Review was folding up for good and one authority said it did so because it lost its sense of purpose. What is The New Criterion's sense of purpose?

JD: It is to stand against the current new-Left degradation of academic and cultural life in the way that Partisan Review stood against the old-Left conformism of the intelligentsia in the 1940s and 1950s. To quote from their editorial manifesto in the very first issue of TNC, the founders aimed to appeal to "anyone capable of recalling a time when criticism was more strictly concerned to distinguish achievement from failure, to identify and uphold a standard of quality, and to speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the arts and the life of the mind in our society."

I believe they have been true to that manifesto, and I think that the esteem you spoke of issues from the magazine's integrity. It even looks the same as it did in 1982. Now that is conservative! You know where you are with TNC. They go everywhere that an intelligent and well-educated person might want to go: art, music, drama, poetry, politics, even science - they actually reviewed Prime Obsession! (Not, I hope and believe, merely as a friendly courtesy to a contributor.) And wherever they go they bring with them the same sensibility: witty without being frivolous, thoughtful without being densely intellectual, opinionated without being hectoring, conservative in the true sense of seeking to conserve eternal high-cultural values in an easily-distracted age.

BC: If someone runs across this interview and they are just beginning to explore conservatism, what publications would you recommend their reading? I think several months back you mentioned that you are a devotee of The Public Interest but what else? How about particular books? A person only has so much free time in a week or month, so what would you define as essential reading?

JD: Oh, dear. I am afraid that here you bump up against my Anglican aversion to theorizing, theology and system-building. In that respect I am very English, I suppose. I really have almost no interest in "conservatism" as a body of theory. Conservatism to me is a bit like atheism - defined by what it does not believe. Conservatism is anti-ideology.

Since you have raised the name of Theodore Dalrymple and mentioned The New Criterion, here is the first, writing in the second (May 2003 issue, p.35): "Anti-communism was not an ideology - it was merely an anti-ideology - but it drew a great deal of strength from the self-evidently formidable nature of the foe, and thus came to appear almost an ideology in itself. But the anti-ideologist now has to fight on a hundred fronts at once; it is more like a guerilla than a conventional war. And since, almost by definition, the anti-ideologist is not as obsessed with any given subject as his many opponents are, who each derive the meaning of their lives from their ideologised grievances, he is at a permanent disadvantage. In the absence of a strong communist enemy, ideology makes inroads in our society as easily as a hot knife through butter."

I like that very much. Conservatism is not an ideology: it is a war on ideology, a never-ending war - a rearguard action, I think in my darker moments.

My advice to your hypothetical browser "just beginning to explore conservatism" would therefore go somewhat as follows. Give all the main conservative-journalism outlets a fair try, and subscribe to those that appeal to you the most. The general-interest ones are: National Review, The American Spectator, Human Events, The Weekly Standard, the London Spectator, The New Criterion, and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, New York Sun, and London Daily Telegraph. If you think you are inclined in a "paleo" direction, try The American Conservative and Chronicles, which are both very well and professionally produced. If you have some particular interest, the articles and advertisements in the general-purpose magazines will soon alert you to a specialist publication you might want to look at - First Things or Crisis, for example, if you are a religious conservative, or Policy Review or The Public Interest if you are more of a policy wonk, Claremont Review for literary criticism, and so on. Now I look back over this paragraph, I am struck by the richness and quality of conservative publications that are available. Being a thoughtful conservative, even an intellectual conservative, is not, after all, such a lonely business!

If you are going to hobnob with conservative intellectuals, get a copy of George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 for reference, so when the names of the Church Fathers come up you will know who they are and what they stood for. For a conservative viewpoint on U.S. history, check out Rick Brookhiser's numerous and beautifully-written books. For a world-wide view, try Paul Johnson, especially his History of Christianity, History of the Jews, Modern Times and Birth of the Modern. Read the book reviews in the conservative magazines, and try current writers you like the sound of.

BC: I know I'm a broken record because in all of these interviews I mention the topic of the culture war, but in your opinion, can conservatives still win the war for culture? What is it that we can do to advance our cause?

JD: In the sense that the grossest and most degrading manifestations of popular culture will continue to press themselves on our, and our children's, attention - that avoiding those manifestations will continue to demand constant, daily efforts of will - no, I don't think we can win the war for culture. I think that war is lost for good. Popular democracy has reached its complete fulfillment in post-industrial society.

BOSWELL. "I think, Sir, you once said to me, that not to drink wine was a great deduction from life."
JOHNSON. "It is a diminution of pleasure, to be sure; but I do not say a diminution of happiness. There is more happiness in being rational."
BOSWELL. "But if we could have pleasure always, should not we be happy? The greatest part of men would compound for pleasure."
JOHNSON. "Supposing we could have pleasure always, an intellectual man would not compound for it. The greatest part of men would compound, because the greatest part of men are gross."

Yes: "the greatest part of men are gross," no less now than in 1778. Probably no more, either; but nowadays they have the vote, and money to spend. They have shucked off all notions of rank or authority, of deference or respectability, of hierarchy or standards in taste, and they believe that everyone's pleasure is as good as everyone else's. That's the world we live in, for better or worse - in some ways, let's be honest, much for the better - and it's not easy to imagine us going back.

All we - we conservatives - can do is to hold on to the truth, to standards, to intellectual discipline. Speak the truth!

* No, people in past times were not less intelligent than ourselves.

* Yes, some productions of the human imagination are superior to others, for reasons to do with eternal values.

* No, it is not the case that white people are inherently wicked (though some are) and un-white people inherently virtuous (though some are).

* Yes, words have meanings, and refer to real things in a real world.

* No, money is not the root of all evil; but too much obsessing about it will deaden you to things of the spirit.

* Yes, human nature exists. It contains both good and evil, always has, and always will.

* No, peace is not always preferable to war, not even to aggressive war.

* Yes, this is a commercial republic, and except in times of grave national danger, government work, however worthy, must take second place to commerce.

* No, gay is not just as good as straight, the ancient Egyptians did not have black skin, a woman needs a man much, much more than a fish needs a bicycle, rhyme and meter (to say nothing of sense) are not obsolete features in English versification, and self-love is not the greatest love of all, but the least.

* It is highly unlikely that any one of us is a uniquely talented individual with a precious gift to offer the world. It is vastly more probable that we are mere atoms in the mass of humanity, who must find fulfillment in a lifetime of performing humdrum tasks on behalf of our family, neighbors, and fellow-citizens, while we each explore our individuality in small rewarding hobbies and private devotions.

I don't think conservatism is necessarily gloomy, and in fact the conservatives I hang out with are, most of them, happy and witty people who enjoy life. (NR editorial conferences are a laugh riot.) However, we conservatives are people of the Cold Eye, which sees things as they are. Wishful thinking is the province of the Left, and the end result of it, always and ever, is the one spelt out by conservatism's greatest poet:

.... after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins,
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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