John Derbyshire’s “Dissidents and Doom”

Recently there has been some hand-wringing in neoreaction about the tendency for non-mainstream thinkers (i.e. neoreactionaries, among others) to be contrarian and anti-social. Well, that is true. It kind of goes along with the territory. Going against a well-established and popular consensus (right or wrong) by yourself in the face of possible harm (financial and/or physical) takes a very special type of personality.

First, Warg Franklin penned a piece on the parable of the raft. Then, Nick B Steves had a follow up piece which was also pretty good. In summary, both articles at once acknowledged both the virtues and the flaws of the dissident personality. It has both, of course. Not to mention that neoreaction wouldn’t exist without it. We are nothing if not dissidents from a well established and alarmingly overbearing Cathedral.

The obvious problem with the dissident personality is that they tend to be very hard to get alone with. And then if they do form groups, many or most of the people in the group have the tendency not to get along with each other because they don’t get along with anyone; least of all other people who are hard to get along with. The moment the group starts doing something they don’t like, they wont hesitate to go it alone so they can have their way completely. Clearly that isn’t a very good trait for a society that requires social cohesion. Though the enabling of the cathedral from mass acquiescence of a generally conforming populace is really bad, having a population full of people with the dissident personality that could short-circuit the cathedral would probably be just as bad, but for different reasons. (Well, maybe not AS bad, but it would have problems). Fortunately, we don’t need that many. A firm unshakable belief in 10% of the population is enough to change a consensus.

There is always the possibility that the dissident is completely wrong and the consensus is right. In which case their contrarian determination can only cause trouble. Still, there are definitely times where the dissident is right and everyone else is wrong; in which case they suddenly become quite valuable if they can convince everyone else.

Of course, given Steves’ and Warg’s purposes of herding the cats of neoreaction it is no wonder that this problem is often on their mind. They deal with it a lot. I have to admit that I myself am guilty of giving in a little too much to my own dissident temperament…

Given that, though, I think they came down a little hard on the dissident personality type because of their experience. I don’t blame them, but I think a defense of the dissident personality and why it is so important is needed so that perspective isn’t lost. Fortunately one already exists. It was written years ago by John Derbyshire and to this day it is still one of my favorite articles produced by the alternative-right (before the modern incarnation changed the meaning of that term a bit). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Steves’ use of the word “dissident” in this context and connotation didn’t originate in Derbyshire’s article/speech. (If you don’t remember the exact title, it can be hard to locate.)

The article was actually a speech given to the providence college republicans titled “Dissidents and Doom” and is related to his book “We are doomed: reclaiming conservative pessimism.”

Personally, I prefer the written transcript. In it he outlines why dissidents are important and the critical role they serve when a culture goes completely off the rails. I recommend the whole thing, but I will provide a few choice quotes. I don’t think I can top what he has already done, and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel anyway, so I will let him explain. First, what is the dissident personality?

The dissident temperament has been present in all times and places, though only ever among a small minority of citizens. Its characteristic, speaking broadly, is a cast of mind that, presented with a proposition about the world, has little interest in where that proposition originated, or how popular it is, or how many powerful and credentialed persons have assented to it, or what might be lost in the way of property, status, or even life, in denying it. To the dissident, the only thing worth pondering about the proposition is, is it true? If it is, then no king’s command can falsify it; and if it is not, then not even the assent of a hundred million will make it true.

I see in these dissidents a lot of the personality characteristics that my loved ones complain about in me: a stubborn cussedness, a disdain for cant and wishful thinking, a lack of interest in what I am supposed to believe and supposed to say. “Who doesn’t want to be a good citizen?” I don’t, not if it involves saying things I know to be preposterous.

Derbyshire definitely agrees that the dissident can be hard to get along with, but he is more inclined to see the glass is half full:

At root this tendency is antisocial. Indeed, if you mix with dissidents much, you notice how fissiparous they are, how they can never agree among themselves about anything for very long. The dissident scene is full of petty animosities and slanders. I find dissidents to be individually admirable and attractive, but collectively hopeless. I’m glad to know they are there, though — that I’m not the only member of what my mother called “the awkward squad.”

And even gives it to totalitarians that a society full of contrarians wouldn’t be great:

And in fact, though it’s an awful thing to say, and I’m going to smother it with qualification, in fact the totalitarians have a sort of a point. A society can’t be stable without widespread unthinking conformism. That’s why dissidents are unpopular. I have spoken to quite liberal and well-educated people in China about high-profile dissidents like Wei Jingsheng. They are not very respectful of dissidence. Mostly they just think dissidents are a bit wrong in the head. Sometimes, and you especially hear this from women, you’ll hear: “He can do what he likes on his own account, but think of the harm he’s doing to his family.” Along with the association with madness, there is an association with social chaos — in the case of Chinese people, fear that too much independence of mind could bring back the terrible chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Just as the association with chaos has some justification, at least in societies traditionally or recently disorderly, so has the association with craziness. The totalitarians who put dissidents into mental hospitals are of course doing a wicked thing, but again, there’s a little grain of truth in the wickedness. Dissidents are poorly socialized. As Eugene said: “Who doesn’t want to be a good citizen?” And the poorly socialized are seen by the better socialized as a bit nutty.

On how a dissdent should exercise restraint:

The sensible dissident should in fact practice a lot of self-restraint. He should in particular show a proper respect for the idols of the tribe. When I was a teenager back in England it was the custom at movie theaters that when the movie program ended, the National Anthem would be played. Everyone was supposed to stand up and be still for the duration. Well, of course, by the age of sixteen I had seen through all that stupid monarchy stuff — a bunch of rich people living in palaces and doing no useful work. Stand up for them? Not me! So I and some like-minded coevals would bravely sit through the anthem. This generated a lot of disapproval from other patrons, leading once or twice almost to fist-fights. We’d made our dissident point, though.

Now I know that the point was not worth making. Harmless tribal rituals are not to be objected to. They are part of the glue that holds a nation together. That’s a fundamental conservative insight. If you’re going to dissent, dissent about something that matters.

What matters? Truth.

Truth is one of the central features of the dissident personality and it is no wonder neoreaction attracts people with that personality type given its similar disregard for feelings and sociability for the sack of truth. As a group we all care more about truth than we care about keeping our heads down or sparing feelings. And it is this concern for unmitigated truth which implies that when a dissident speaks (or writes), you should at least hear him out. His main value which leads to him being a dissident in the first place is his sole concern with the truth; especially with respect to social pressure and conformity. This concern leads the dissident to find methods of sifting truth from fiction. Methods the average person never bothers to learn for themselves. Chances are that he is much more likely to speak the truth (or at least his honest perception thereof) as a result. Derbyshire describes the thinking of the average person in comparison to the unmitigated pursuit of truth:

The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list …

When the magical (I wish this to be so: therefore it is so!) and the religious (We are all one! Brotherhood of man! The universe loves us!) and the social (This is what all good citizens believe! If you believe otherwise you are a bad person!) and the personal (That bastard didn’t show me the respect I’m entitled to!) all come together, the mighty psychic forces unleashed can be irresistible. Ask Larry Summers or James Watson.

Derbyshire also goes on for a while about “soft-totalitarianism,” what we would call the cathedral. One of the examples he uses is on black/white IQ differences, but there are other examples:

At the beginning of lecture 25, “Intelligence, Genes, and Environment,” [Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang] promised a discussion of group differences, but all we got was some bland stuff about males vs. females. In one of the lectures on learning he skated as close as he dared to the dread topic, but then opened an escape hatch and dropped through it. The name of the escape hatch is “Eyferth,” a great favorite with those on the nurture side of the nature-nurture issue. Klaus Eyferth was a German researcher who in 1961 published a study on the children of black and white U.S. servicemen born to German women. The study showed no overall difference in average IQ between black and white children. There are all sorts of open questions about the study: we don’t for example know the IQs of the fathers. The really big question, though, is this: Since the Eyferth study has been such a huge hit, and gets mentioned by every politically correct commentator on the human sciences, how is it that in fifty years — fifty years! — nobody has been able to replicate the findings?

The 2003 Turkheimer study that claimed to show heritability of IQ is lower in low-income families is another one of these nurturist darlings. David Brooks cites it uncritically in his new book, which I reviewed in the last but one issue of National Review. Sam Wang refers to it too, also uncritically. Neither of them seems aware that at least three attempts to replicate Turkheimer’s findings came up with results that were either null or else the opposite of what Turkheimer claimed to have found. The omission is pardonable in Brooks’ case — the guy’s just a journalist, after all — but not in Prof. Wang’s.

This is the environment of soft totalitarianism I am speaking about. Quite well-established facts about human nature may not be mentioned, even in a lecture by a professor at a prestigious university — a lecture I paid good money for. (Do I have a case in law here?) Where facts are not well-established, but suggest more than one possibility, only possibilities agreeable to ruling political orthodoxies may be discussed.

It is when pervasive lies and/or denials like that of racial differences, gender differences, socialism, immigration or other parts of the mainstream consensus are both extremely harmful to society and become unmentionable that the dissident personality becomes absolutely critical and indispensable. Only the dissident can withstand the pressure of conformity and tell everyone to pull their heads out of their rears. Society needs them for those inevitable times when Lysenkoism takes over. They are the release valve that can slowly drag the society back to sanity. With the dissident comes the chance to escape collapse. Without them, collapse is inevitable. So when considering whether or not a dissident should be ostracized great care should be taken. Dissidents provide a valuable service and whether or not they are right should always take precedence over whether or not they are disagreeable. That is true in general, but doubly true for neoreaction. It is true that you should protect your community from the sorts who will destabilize it, but at the same time moderation should be shown in such judgements. Not every contrarian is a trolling entryist.

For the non-dissident personality types, as well as for my fellow neoreactionaries, I leave you with Derbyshire’s request in relation to the dissident personality. One I wholeheartedly agree with:

Give the dissident temperament a little respect. When dissidents are obnoxious or nutty, which we often are, cut them some slack. Bring your own critical faculties to bear on the things they talk about, and always check the source materials. Try to learn to spot an urban legend or a convenient truth, especially one you hear a lot from not-very-well-informed people. If, when passing through a public square, you see that they’re burning a heretic at the stake, at the very least don’t join in the applause.

Also, this poem at the end was pretty good:

Here, in this little Bay
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

(Note: Unsurprisingly, in an example of possible lysenkoism, firefox doesn’t recognize “lysenkosim” as a word).

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4 thoughts on “ John Derbyshire’s “Dissidents and Doom”

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  3. […] was prompted by Warg Franklin’s and my musings about dissidents to recall John Derbyshire’s “Dissidents and Doom” speech, adding his own commentary on the […]

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