A Call to Pessimism
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
The Politics of Despair
This book is addressed to American conservatives. Its argument is that things are bad and getting worse for our movement, for our nation, and for our civilization. A large part of the reason they have gotten so bad is that too many of us have fallen into foolishly utopian ways of thinking.
Those ways of thinking are false because they are too optimistic about human nature and human affairs. The proper outlook of conservatives, I shall argue, is a pessimistic one, at least so far as the things of this world are concerned. We have been misled, and the conservative movement has been derailed, by legions of fools and poseurs wearing smiley-face masks. I aim to unmask them.
I have both a diagnosis and a prognosis to offer. The diagnosis is that conservatism has been fatally weakened by yielding to infantile temptations: temptations to optimism, to wishful thinking, to happy talk, to cheerily preposterous theories about human beings and the human world.
Thus weakened, conservatism can no longer provide the backbone of cold realism that every organized society needs. Hence my prognosis; hence my title. We are doomed.
By abandoning our properly pessimistic approach to the world, conservatives have helped bring about a state of affairs that thoughtful persons can only contemplate with pessimism. If we’d held on to the pessimistic outlook that’s proper for our philosophy, the future might be brighter!
This looks like a paradox, but really isn’t, as I’m using the word “pessimism” in two slightly different senses: to indicate low expectations of one’s fellow men, and to name a belief about the probable future. If we expect too much of people, we’ll be disappointed, and our schemes will fail. Heady optimism about human nature leads directly to disaster. To put it in the style of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: the Road of Denial leads to the Precipice of Destruction. Didn’t the great utopian experiments of the twentieth century teach us that? We’ve repeated those experiments—in a less brazen way, to be sure, but with the same inevitable result now coming upon us.
By embracing a proper conservative pessimism, we may yet rescue something from the coming ruin. At the very least, by returning to cold reality after our recent detour into sunny fantasy, we’ll put ourselves in the right frame of mind for our new life in the wilderness.
The winning candidate in the 2008 presidential election promoted something called “the politics of hope.” Ladies and gentlemen of conservative inclination, I call you to our true, our proper home. I call you to the politics of despair!
The Scope of the Argument
This book is about what we have done to ourselves, to our society and culture. It’s about the hopelessness of any project to save the situation based on current conservatism, perverted as it has been by smiley-face schemes of human improvement. It’s about composing ourselves to a true view of humanity and human affairs, so that we can get through our individual destinies usefully and with maximum peace of mind in the dark age to come, preserving as much as can be preserved. Who knows? Once back in touch with truth, we might even see a revival of real conservatism: self-support, patriotism, limited government, federalism . . . though of course, I don’t hold out much hope.
Please be clear about the scope of the pessimism I urge on you. Don’t mistake my thesis for any of those tabloid Chicken Little prognostications about particular economic, ecological, military, or cosmic misfortunes we may be able to science our way out of.
Have we reached Peak Oil? I don’t know. (Neither, so far as I can gather from some extensive reading in this area, does anyone else.) Will global warming melt the polar ice caps? Sorry, I have no clue. Are suitcase nuclear weapons secreted in our cities awaiting a word of command from some terrorist mastermind or malevolent dictator? I really couldn’t say. Shall we fall to some plague, some runaway particle-physics experiment, some asteroid strike or other celestial mishap? Or will human nature itself disappear into a “singularity” around the middle of this century, as futurologist Ray Kurzweil predicts? Beats my pair of jacks.
My book is not primarily about any of those things, though speaking as a constitutional pessimist, I’d lay odds that one or other of them is lurking just round the historical corner. Things are bad and getting worse, any fool can see that, but I pin my dark banner to no one particular prediction. Despair should be large and general, not petty and particular.
Nor does my scope extend beyond this human state and this earthly life. Possibly there are other states and other lives. Though no longer an adherent of any religion, I maintain an open mind on these issues. They are in any case outside the purview of this book. I’m writing about the communal arrangements of a particular social mammal on a particular planet. Believe what you like about matters beyond that; this book isn’t concerned with them.
The happy pessimist
That’s all very well, you may say, but isn’t pessimism enervating? If all is for the worst for us in this, the worst of all possible worlds, why bother? Why not sit around vegetating in a state of glum melancholia, like the angel in Dürer’s fine engraving of that name?
That would be to misunderstand the nature of a thoughtful, considered pessimism. There is no necessary connection between a pessimistic outlook and a melancholy temperament. At most I’ll allow that having a naturally glum disposition makes it easier to attain an understanding of human depravity, contrariety, mental incoherence, and imperfectibility. I myself do have such a disposition, and won’t be trying to hide behind any fake jollity. Later in this book, in fact, I shall present some actual science suggesting that a glum melancholic is just the person you want to go to for the truth about human affairs. Yet plenty of active, convivial, and useful people have a pessimistic outlook. Some of them have done important things to improve their societies and lift up their fellow men.
Here are some of the gloomiest lines in all of English literature. They are by the poet Matthew Arnold:
. . . the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Arnold was a witty and sociable man who loved sport and companionship. He worked hard at useful employment, was happily married to the same lady for thirty-seven years, and was a loving father to his six children.
Enervating? Not at all: Pessimism is bracing, like foul weather. (Arnold and I were both raised in England.)
It also makes you a better person. Consider the optimist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed human beings to be innately good and who laid the philosophical foundations for progressive, “child-centered” methods of education. Rousseau was, by his own admission, a thief, a liar, a sexual exhibitionist, and a philanderer. He cohabited with a coarse and illiterate woman, to whom he was not faithful, and deposited the five children he gave her in orphanages because he did not want the trouble of raising them.
We pessimists, you see, are not only wiser than the smiley-face crowd; we are better people. This is no mere biological accident. We are better people because we know that most of the improvements that can be made in human affairs must be made by us ourselves—by individuals and small voluntary associations. Efforts at improvement by organizations much larger than that will come to naught, or even make things worse, if not based on a clear understanding of human ignorance and weakness.
That’s the core of a proper conservative pessimism: the recognition that there is little hope for improvement in this world; that such small hope as there is should be directed toward the actions of one, or a few; and that most of what governments do is wicked, when not merely pointless and counterproductive.
There is work to be done; there is life to be lived; there are children to be raised, friendships to be cultivated, bills to be paid, and many pleasures to be enjoyed. You may feel, after reading my book, that there is no point in bothering with any of those things. You may even decide to head for the exit. If so, I hope you’ll drop me a line, care of my publisher, before doing so, in order that I might have a chance at dissuading you. I’d be sorry to think that my book, in its modest passage through the world, had left widows and orphans in its wake.
Should you choose to stick around, I hope that you’ll keep yourself busy with something useful, and try to be a good citizen. There is no reason not to. Jails and asylums are uncomfortable places, life on the streets is unhygienic and dangerous, and nobody will pay you a salary to sit around brooding in melancholia. That figure in Dürer’s engraving is a symbolic personification, not an Employee of the Month.
It’s only natural
I understand, of course, that many American conservatives will hesitate to accept my argument. Isn’t this the country of infinite possibility, where all problems are solvable and all futures bright? Isn’t optimism a part of the American creed, part of our very national essence? Yes, we can!—Can’t we?
To the degree any of that is true, it is because liberals have declared it so. The original European settlers of North America were very pessimistic indeed, to a degree modern minds can hardly encompass. The Calvinist Congregationalists of New England even managed to be pessimistic about the Afterlife. Says historian David Hackett Fischer in his splendid book Albion’s Seed:
The fabled “Five Points” of New England’s Calvinist Orthodoxy insisted that the natural condition of humanity was total depravity, that salvation was beyond mortal striving, that grace was predestined only for a few, that most mortals were condemned to suffer eternal damnation, and no earthly effort could save them.
The embreeched, powdered-wigged gentlemen of the Tidewater South were hardly any more hopeful. The corresponding section in Fischer’s book has the heading “Virginia Death Ways: The Anglican Idea of Stoic Fatalism.” That idea was entirely appropriate to the circumstances of the Tidewater region, whose climate and geography made for terribly high death rates—perhaps twice as high as in rural New England.
All this pessimism fit very well into the circumstances of early-colonial life. When Europeans first came to North America, it was a very wild place indeed. Those early settlers lived close to nature; and the natural world is a pitiless one. That’s a fact known to few of us nowadays. I’ve only just recently come to appreciate it myself.
Getting acquainted with human-nature studies these past few years (see Chapter 7), I’ve found that the people who talk the most sense are types who have a strong interest in nature itself—or “herself,” as they tend to say. Sure, you can sit in your study and introspect, or buy a shelf of philosophy courses from the Teaching Company. For sheer insight into the living world, though—including the human world—nothing can beat the kind of scientist who started out with a bug collection at age eleven and never lost his enthusiasm for the teeming, chaotic, cruel, convoluted, fantastically interconnected world of nature. Edward O. Wilson, whom I shall surely be quoting before I get through with this book, is a star example; another is of course Charles Darwin.
Annie Dillard came to nature somewhat later than that, but she struck a true note in her Pulitzer Prize–winning 1974 book about the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me . . . we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt . . . space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death.
I once took a walk with a biologist friend, Rob Woodman, in California’s San Bernardino National Forest. Rob paused every few yards to show me some insect, leaf, or worm, and to tell me its story. Stories everywhere—in every fold of every leaf, in every handful of soil, in every broken-off piece from a rotting tree trunk, a story! The plots of the stories were Dillardesque: birth, struggle, mayhem, pain, death.
This all came new to me, a revelation. I’m an indoor sort of person, with no innate, unprompted interest in the natural world. My sensibility is that of Dorothy Parker: “Every year, back spring comes, with the nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off, and the ground all mucked up with arbutus.” I’ve read enough to learn a little humility, though. If you want to get a handle on human nature, listen to the people who know nature.
The early settlers of North America knew it very well. They had no illusions about the gentle beneficence of the natural order. If they had, there were always bears, wolves, and crop failures to remind them of the biological facts.
If they had known more, they would have had an even darker view. If, for example, those Tidewater Anglicans had known that the diseases that swept away their loved ones in droves were not signs of God’s displeasure at our fallen state, but the blind actions of unthinking microbes and viruses, devoid of any personal interest in humanity, they would have reached conclusions about nature very close to Annie Dillard’s.
The Rise of Happy Talk
On such noble pessimism was our republic founded. Out of such grimly low expectations for the possibility of worldly happiness was our Constitution born.
The optimistic rot set in as Calvinism gave way to Unitarianism in the later eighteenth century. The 1805 election of Henry Ware Sr., a Unitarian, to the Professorship of Divinity at Harvard University prepared the way for the great liberal-optimist flowering of the Transcendentalist movement in the 1830s and 1840s. Henry Ware Jr., the professor’s son, was friend and mentor to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a key progenitor of modern smiley-face liberalism, and a person who, in my opinion, ought to be burned in effigy at the commencement of every conservative gathering.
The fine original pessimism of our nation’s founders had been set aside, and the modern style of vaporous happy talk had been born.
To be fair to the happy talkers, their movement arose from a perceived need, as all intellectual and social movements do, and in the vigor of its youth it contributed to some necessary reforms. The social condition of women improved, slavery was abolished, gross and promiscuous drunkenness was abated, and a more humane attitude to our vanquished aborigines emerged.
All good ideas are of their time, though, and are liable to turn from blessings into blights if persisted in too long. The justifiable right of workers to organize in protection of their interests turned at last into featherbedding, the Teamster rackets, auto companies made uncompetitive by extravagant benefits agreements, and government-worker unions voting themselves ever-bigger shares of the public fisc. The campaign for full civil rights and racial justice turned into affirmative action, race quotas, grievance lawsuits, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and everlasting racial rancor.
The point of diminishing returns for American progressive optimism had long since been reached by the time Prohibition came along to demonstrate beyond any doubt that the optimists’ program had turned into a war on human nature.
Twilight in America
But hold on there! (I hear you cry) What about Ronald Reagan? Wasn’t he the very epitome of modern conservatism? And didn’t he present a cheerful face to the world, scoff at his predecessor’s diagnosis of “malaise,” and proclaim Morning in America?
Again, this is to confuse a sunny disposition with a well-thought-out conviction that earthly affairs cannot be much improved by the hand of man—most certainly not by the hand of government.
Reagan, like Matthew Arnold, was a cheerful and busy fellow, but the good he did in government, he did chiefly with a pessimist’s restraint. He did not follow the 1983 bombing of a U.S. barracks in Lebanon by invading and occupying that country with the dream of turning it into a constitutional democracy, as a smiley-face world-improver would have done; he pulled out. He did not, like his liberal predecessor, chide his countrymen for their “inordinate fear of communism”; he shared that gloomy fear, speaking of the Soviet Union in frank, dark terms, not as a regrettable but correctable error on the part of well-meaning reformers—Emersonian Transcendentalists who had taken a wrong turn on the road to Walden Pond—but as an “evil empire.”
A very rough index of an American president’s faith in plans for social or international uplift is his willingness to veto legislation. There are many variables in play here—most obviously, whether president and Congress are of the same party—but veto counts offer at least an approximate clue about presidential skepticism toward political schemes for human uplift.
Ronald Reagan’s annualized rate of vetoes across his term of office was 10, the same as William Howard Taft’s. This puts Reagan and Taft at ninth in the rankings. Just below them at tenth stand McKinley, Coolidge, and Hoover, with 9 vetoes per annum apiece. Above, in eighth place, are Teddy Roosevelt and Benjamin Harrison with 11. Above them stand Grant with 12 vetoes per annum, Eisenhower with 23, and fourth-ranked Gerry Ford with 27. Republicans all! Reagan noted in his diary entry for July 9, 1987: “Every pen I look at is a veto pen to me.”
(It is true that the top three scorers here are all Democrats: Truman with 32, FDR with 52, and Grover Cleveland with an astounding average of 73 vetoes per annum. These were all very special cases, though—notably Cleveland, a fine classical-conservative liberal—“libertarian,” we would say nowadays—and every conservative Republican’s favorite Democrat. George W. Bush’s score was a wretchedly hypercompassionate 1.5—12 vetoes in eight years.)
A pessimistic president knows that, as the great Calvin Coolidge told his father, “it is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” Most of what legislators legislate and executives execute is foolish, counterproductive, or downright wicked, so the less they do the better.
Coolidge is, in fact, a key figure here: a great pessimist and a great conservative, from sound New England Calvinist/Congregationalist roots—a backcountry pre-Transcendentalist in spirit, in spite of having been born shortly after Emerson’s sixty-ninth birthday. Coolidge’s mature philosophical outlook was formed by the charismatic Amherst teacher C. E. Garman, an orthodox New England Congregationalist: “a cheerful, happy man” according to his classmate Clarence Sargent, who nonetheless taught a stern philosophy of service and integrity.
Historian Paul Johnson, who made a close study of Coolidge, described him thus: “A constitutionally suspicious man, and not one to believe easily that permanent contentment is to be found this side of eternity.”
One of Coolidge’s greatest admirers was . . . Ronald Reagan. On entering the White House in 1981, Reagan had Coolidge’s portrait hung in the Oval Office, replacing Harry Truman’s.
Wrong but Wromantic
In any case, Reagan’s “Morning in America” rhetoric needs to be discounted for a certain understandable triumphalism. By the time Reagan attained office the outcome of the Cold War was not in much doubt. America’s social and economic system was obviously superior to the Soviet command-economy police state. The End of History was in plain sight, and it was clear that one pole of the bipolar world would soon melt away, leaving the United States as top dog: secure, unchallenged, and far ahead of the rest of the world in freedom and prosperity. (The negative consequences of all that were well out of sight over the horizon.) Under those circumstances, even pessimists could be forgiven for some lapses into happy talk.
Another great conservative pessimist—there have been so many!—the British Tory anarchist Enoch Powell, said: “All political lives . . . end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” I believe Ronald Reagan would have agreed with him. Here is journalist, novelist, and playwright George Packer:
According to [Patrick] Buchanan, who was the White House communications director in Reagan’s second term, the President once told his barber, Milton Pitts, “You know, Milt, I came here to do five things, and four out of five ain’t bad.” He had succeeded in lowering taxes, raising morale, increasing defense spending, and facing down the Soviet Union; but he had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement. He didn’t come close to achieving it and didn’t try very hard, recognizing early that the public would be happy to have its taxes cut as long as its programs weren’t touched.
There is a fuller exposition of this melancholy truth about the Reagan administration in Chapter 3 of David Frum’s 1994 book Dead Right. The chapter is titled “The Failure of the Reagan Gambit.”
I note in passing that the following chapter in Dead Right is titled “Optimists: Wrong but Wromantic.” Just so. Frum took that phrase from W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s spoof British-history book 1066 and All That, where the English Civil War of the seventeenth century is defined as a “struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right and Repulsive).” Now I ask you, conservative reader: Given a choice between being Wrong but Wromantic or Right and Repulsive, are you going to hesitate for even a nanosecond?
Ronald Reagan was far too astute a man not to have known that “the abiding passion of [his] political career and of the conservative movement” was a hopeless passion, one that the world—which in this context mainly means the U.S. electorate—would never requite; one that the conservative movement itself was soon to abjure with cheery insouciance, having convinced itself that humanity can be improved by the spending of public money.
Children of Wrath
Back in the late 1960s, when the sectarian problems of Northern Ireland were heating up, the British home secretary (roughly equivalent to a U.S. attorney general) went over to the province to pour oil on the troubled waters.
This home secretary was a fellow named James Callaghan. A cheerful, back-slapping type, Callaghan was nicknamed “Sunny Jim.” If anyone could do the oil-pouring business, Sunny Jim surely could.
As part of his tour, Callaghan had a meeting with the fiercely sectarian Unionist (which is to say, Protestant, and in fact Presbyterian-Calvinist) politician, the Reverend Ian Paisley. Paisley launched himself into a long rant about the wickedness of the Roman Catholic Church, the perfidy of its priests, and the gullibility and treachery of its adherents.
Callaghan listened patiently until Paisley stopped to draw breath. Then he said in his best oil-pouring tones: “Come, come, Mr. Paisley. Are we not all the children of God?”
Paisley (who only ever speaks in capital letters): “NO, SIR. WE ARE THE CHILDREN OF WRATH.”
Whatever you may think of Paisley’s politics, sectarianism, or personality, his view of the human condition was surely a sound one. We are indeed the children of Wrath. All wisdom proceeds from this. Truly, the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from We Are Doomed by John Derbyshire. Copyright © 2009 by John Derbyshire. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.