I don't care for much of what John Derbyshire writes - indeed I think he's a risible writer and stunted, laughable person in many ways - but his review of Ramesh Ponnuru's Party of Death is a legged-out fly-ball triple off the left-field wall (oh! it's a sports metaphor). It's a subtle review, praising some of Ponnuru's points while standing proudly against the argument of the book. Derbyshire's unapologetic and humane skeptical secularism reminds me of Hitchens, though it somehow avoids Hitchens's laughing viciousness:
For RTL [Right-to-Life] is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality, that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death! I think at last it is largely a matter of temperament. Ponnuru has given his chapter on euthanasia the title “The Doctor Will Kill You Now.” I imagine the author meant this to have shock value. He plainly finds atrocious the notion of a doctor—a healer!—killing someone. I can’t say I agree. I can all too easily imagine circumstances in which I would respond to “The doctor will kill you now” with “Thank God!” either on my own behalf or a loved one’s. I suppose this, by Ponnuru’s standards and definitions, puts me in the Party of Death. It depends what you look for from life, and from the great cold cosmos—as I said, just a matter of temperament, really. Some of us are RTL absolutists: “You can’t do that to a living human being!” Some of us are personal autonomy absolutists: “Don’t tell me what to do with my own body!” Most of us are too unintellectual to be consistently absolutist about anything. We just favor one side or the other, more or less strongly. America would be a happier and freer nation if the accursed intellectuals would just leave us alone with our lives, our blunders, our tragedies, and our deaths.
The thing is, I disagree with many of the premises and much of the overall worldview of those last two paragraphs, for instance the gestural anti-intellectualism of the last sentences, and especially the deeply reactionary silliness of that opening rhetoric - which reaches leftward to draw an (I think) unproductive equivalence between the dangerous anti-intellectualism of Derbyshire's own Party of Reaction and his elegantly-phrased but bog-standard nemesis, 'academical egalitarianism.' Derbyshire's objections to Ponnuru are an elaboration of a conservative standpoint - that RTL 'philosophy' impinges inexcusably upon individual liberty. I appreciate the critique and can go along with the viewpoint to a degree, but you can make equally strong arguments from a communitarian standpoint, striking a realistic balance between liberty and social responsibility, without enabling the ludicrous fiscal/cultural extensions too often made to sensible conservatism. My brother is fond of pointing out in such discussions that we can justify euthanasia on purely fiscal grounds - end-of-life care is staggeringly costly - and curiously that view resonates in my lightly-bleeding heart, because abstracting 'costly' to mean 'exacting a too-unbearable toll on the social fabric' fits nicely into my 4th-grade quasi-liberal outlook.
Still, the Derb puts a velvet glove over an iron fist in this review, and if he overcompensates for his criticisms by granting too many concessions, he wallops Ponnuru by the end.
The book concludes with a stirring call—which I endorse!—for the reversal of Roe v. Wade. As the author says:The end of Roe would not hand pro-lifers victory in all the political debates over abortion policy. It would give them the right to have those debates in the first place.Nothing wrong with that, so far as I can see. Even cults have a right to be heard. I would not like to see RTL views prevail; but I would rather see them prevail than see them stifled.
Derbyshire is being willfully, characteristically dense here - by granting the 'RTL' movement the same intellectual status as Ponnuru's arguments supposedly attain. It has been argued convincingly many times over that much RTL rhetoric is a cover for a broad movement to strike at sexual freedom, particularly for women - as anticonservative as an outlook could be. Derb is right to point out that overturning Roe wouldn't criminalize abortion, but he's playing the dunce if he thinks that the adherents of this 'frigid dogma' are actually interested, generally, in debate. He's forgetting - and we can assume purposefully so, given the attentiveness of his review - just what groups his National Review colleague is carrying water for. From the stupid lie of the 'pro-life' label (which isn't about preserving life at all, as Derbyshire indicates but won't drive home) to the incremental political realities of 'pro-life' advocacy (which simply can not be divorced from the moral issues, no matter what the party purists at NR would like to think, no matter how fervently they claim to want to purge the unfashionably zealous from their side of the aisle), the issues at stake in in these debates are even less simple than the obviously intelligent but only sometimes serious Derbyshire seems prepared to admit.
As he obviously sees, the motivations of Ponnuru's fellow-travellers are anything but intellectual; but he doesn't criticize them harshley enough. Because even granting their irrational foundation, they're more selfish, more self-serving, more expedient than those of the one-man Party of Ponnuru apparently are. Ponnuru may welcome debate; 'grad school debaters' (as Derb calls them) always do. He is in that regard an exception - if only in that regard, mind you.