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John Derbyshire and me: A confession of failure

By now the tale of John Derbyshire's exile from National Review for racist writings is well-known and well-told. I have little to add to the discussion, except to make a confession: I interviewed John Derbyshire two years ago. I thought his work was racist, sexist, and homophobic—but offered a chance to forcefully challenge the man and his ugly views ... I tiptoed and hid. I'm not proud of this. But it's worth recognizing.

Some context: Ben Boychuk and I have been writing a column together for Scripps Howard News Service for more than four years. He's conservative, I'm liberal, and part of the point of the project is that we can be in friendly dialogue with each other even as we disagree vigorously. This is where I got a bit tripped up.

As part of our project, we also do a regular podcast. (Or, it's getting regular again: My medical travails in 2011 sidetracked us.) And in 2009, we decided to interview Derbyshire on the occasion of his then-new book. I read the book in advance of the interview, found it well-written, even entertainingly so, but drastically wrongheaded in the usual ways that Derbyshire is wrongheaded. When it came time to chat, though, I kept my foot off the pedal.

Put it this way: I asked him about poetry. I told him I enjoyed reading his stuff. And when it came to the race stuff, I ... asked about it in an overly respectful way. Go ahead and listen to the audio linked above. I did over the weekend. It's unpleasant for me to hear.

Why did I whiff so badly?

I didn't want to be a jerk. Though Derbyshire has cheerfully--always cheerfully!--admitted to being a racist, it's still a bit of a turd in the punchbowl to directly suggest to the person that they're chatting with that, yes, you think they're a racist. I was taking the commitment to civil dialogue seriously; maybe too seriously.

I was underprepared: Derbyshire is very good at wielding studies and reports in such a way to back up his contentions that black folks are dumber and more violent than the rest of us. I didn't take the time to delve into those studies more deeply, or to find out how they'd been challenged. That left me out of position when it came time to challenge him. Instead, I confessed discomfort with his findings in a manner that, as I listen to it now, seems to imply uncomfortable acceptance of Derbyshire's view of things.

I was probably a bit star-struck: This is silly, I realize, given that lots of people didn't probably even know who John Derbyshire was until this past weekend. Still. I'd read National Review and its blog, The Corner, for awhile--mostly disagreeing with it, but sometimes being entertained by it. And in 2009, I was still kind of amazed at having access to national-level people whose stuff I'd read. I was a bit of a hick.

Maybe I still am.

Listen, I'm under no illusion that a more forceful showing by me in a podcast interview in 2009 would've altered the course of Derbyshire's career. My failure in this matter affects, well, pretty much only me. But Derbyshire's writings deserved a vigorous interlocutor. I failed in that function. And I regret it.


Notorious Ph.D. said…
What would Mike Wallace do?

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