John Derbyshire, Rich Lowry, National Review, and Editors’ Responsibilities

The long-overdue firing of John Derbyshire from National Review for writing a confoundingly racist guide for white parents about how to speak to their children about their social interactions with black people has raised has raised a number of questions about how editor Rich Lowry ought to have handled Derbyshire, whose thoughts in this area are not precisely new. Ta-Nehisi wants to know why it took so long for Lowry to reach this decision after Derbyshire described himself as a racist and homophobe in 2003. And Dave Weigel asks ” If you’re going to have anti-black sentiment, would you rather have it dumb and exposed or would you rather have it subtle? The authors of stories about how Trayvon Martin looked really scary in his fake grill and tweets don’t add oh, and this is because black youths are scary. Even if they’re unarmed. Derbyshire came out and did it.”

These questions go together, and both have serious implications for how editors, and other purveyors of valuable cultural capital, ought to allocate it. On the question of outspokenness, I have no particular wish to see people I care about harmed by the ugly speech of others. I know first-hand that calling out shockingly blunt speech like Derbyshire’s—or on a much lesser level, Lee Aronsohn’s—can be a terrific traffic driver. But hearing it and feeling that outrage is also mentally exhausting. The argument is, however, that such unadulterated, un-prettified speech gives us an opportunity to see racism, sexism, and homophobia as it truly is, an experience that I imagine is more of an education for straight, white dudes than for women, people of color, or gay folks. But it’s true that there are a lot of straight, white men in positions of cultural authority. I’m not immune to the idea that it’s good for them to be exposed to moments of uncomfortable clarity that require them to draw firm lines in the sand about what ideas they are and aren’t willing to be associated with, and what people they are and aren’t willing to credential.

The problem is that suggesting that such authority figures need those shocking moments absolves them of responsibility to constantly be thinking about these kinds of questions. Sure, the requirement that racists, sexists, and homophobes pretty up their ugly thoughts—whether via Charles Murray-like stabs at scientific legitimation or pretentions of concern—may make those sentiments less immediately obvious in prose. But isn’t that precisely the kind of thing that we hire magazine editors to detect through deep and perceptive readings? You shouldn’t get credit for elucidating the line when the lack of one is causing you discomfort. You should get credit for weeding out noxious ideas precisely when it would be less convenient for you to do so, but because you feel it’s important to make clear the damage that those roots are doing below the soil.