What’s worse: ‘dangerous’ or ‘racist’ thinking, or firing a writer for expressing such thinking?
As a private entity, National Review had every legal right to fire John Derbyshire. But let’s not pretend that his dismissal is anything less than a blow to freedom of thought and freedom of speech.
Derbyshire, after all, had been writing for National Review for at least 10 years. He was summarily dismissed on Saturday, though, after he published a controversial article about “the talk that nonblack Americans have, [or should have], with their kids.”
Critics have denounced the article as a “racist screed,” and that certainly is one way to read the piece. Derbyshire references the socioeconomic difficulties that disproportionately affect African Americans. He then cites these difficulties as sufficient reason for non-blacks to avoid, and even to discriminate against, African Americans.
I don’t agree with Derbyshire’s group-centric approach to race relations. I’ve known, served and worked with too many upstanding African Americans — including a young Haitian immigrant U.S. Marine — to harbor any ill will toward blacks. The truth is they are our fellow Americans. And our culture — especially in the arts and the sports and entertainment fields — would be far poorer were it not for their contributions.
In any case, there is, I think, another way to read Derbyshire’s piece; and that is as the exasperation of a man at his wit’s end because of the myriad problems that all of us know destroy the lives of too many African Americans.
For example, in one seemingly cruel passage, Derbyshire writes: “Do not act as the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g.., on the highway.”
Of course, Jesus counseled the exact opposite: Jesus implores us to be the good Samaritan, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and to help the man in distress.
So is Derbyshire the devil for contravening Jesus? No, of course not. He’s human; he’s annoyed; and he’s upset — and for good reason: He’s seen senseless and violent behavior play itself out too often within African American communities. And, to illustrate, he cites one telling anecdote:
A 61-year-old good Samaritan, Quintin Guerrero rushed to help one young black woman after she jumped out of a moving cab in front of Guerrero’s house.
However, reports the Daily News in a piece linked by Derbyshire, Guerrero was stomped to death by the woman he attempted to save and her boyfriend.
In other words, Derbyshire is saying, the breakdown in civilization has become endemic within certain parts of the African American community that no good deed there goes unpunished. So tread cautiously and avoid becoming the victim.
Can anyone dispute that this is true? Sure, we may not share Derbyshire’s conclusion — and certainly I don’t — that blacks should be looked upon as representatives of a dangerous group and not as distinct and often praiseworthy individuals. But can anyone deny the humanity and deep frustration that underlies Derbyshire’s writing?
In short, it is too easy — and all too wrong — to simply dismiss Derbyshire’s provocative piece as a “racist rant.” In point of fact, as even National Review editor Rich Lowry acknowledges, Derbyshire is a “deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer.”
Which is why his dismissal is, I think, so wrong and so misguided.
The hard and difficult truth is that Derbyshire was fired for expressing unpopular ideas — ideas that many people say they loathe and abhor. But the very purpose of the First Amendment is to promote the vigorous exchange of ideas in a free, open and contested market. It is not to preemptively censor or punish people for saying things that people don’t want to hear.
“I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe,” explained the late great Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
In short, bad ideas should be countered with good ideas; and poor thinking should be confronted with better thinking. The consequence of Derbyshire’s piece should have been an outpouring of articles and opinion pieces explaining how and why he erred.
Curiously, though, that hasn’t happened. Instead, we’ve had a much-needed dialogue and debate about race short-circuited by indignant cries of “racism” — as if promiscuously throwing that word about absolves us of our need to think and to argue.
I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. And calling people bad names (“racists”) and labeling them with the modern-day equivalent of the scarlet letter won’t do. That tactic has grown old, and that dog won’t hunt. Not anymore. Not after the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other racial charlatans have rendered the word racist all but meaningless today.
Again, as a private entity, National Review had the legal right to to fire Derbyshire. But in so doing, they flouted the very purpose and intent of the First Amendment, which is to promote, and not squelch, hard-hitting dialogue and debate. And, for a think magazine dedicated to intellectual combat, that is, I think, a mortal sin far greater than any wrong committed by John Derbyshire.