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June 19, 2006

Where We Start, and Where We End Up

Perhaps the problem is that people of a scientific bent are too often inclined to run off at the mouth over some perceived instance of a personal methodological peeve and, therefore, respond to points that others are not making. In Derbyshire's case, he offers that peeve as "fallacious reasoning about human development, mostly of the correlation-equals-causation variety." He writes:

Two alternative explanations come to mind at once. (1) We have an aggressive adult from an aggressive parent (he beat the kid, didn't he?) Maybe aggression runs in this family. It doesn't even have to be genetic. It could be dietary, or religious. (2) The kid was obnoxious and difficult from the start. (Some are. Believe me.) The parent, who was perfectly average in aggressiveness, was driven to distraction (read: abnormally aggressive reactions) by the kid's intransigent naughtiness. So we're not looking at a parent-to-child effect at all; we're actually looking at a child-to-parent effect! Yet I am pretty sure I have never read a headline saying "Difficult Kids Provoke Parents to Abuse, Study Shows." Why not? Because our popular culture, and even big swathes of our academic culture, are Freud-soaked: Mom and Dad make you what you are.

There's a clinical perspective, here — fatally tied to notions of oppressor and victim — that strikes me as related to the temperament that leads such as Derbyshire to laud the liberty of pregnant women who choose to abort their children. Nobody who disagrees with Derbyshire on the subject of fatherhood has, as far as I can see, gainsaid the notion that good parents can have bad kids, or vice versa. Our point (if I may speak for the crowd) is that — once again — parents matter. Derbyshire writes as if "aggressive adult" is a category free of internal value differentiations.

Personally, with my perspective as a father, the child prone to aggression is a given. He is my son, and I must raise him. (Note: My actual son is, apart from being bare months old, not giving any indication of untoward aggression.) The question from my point of view is what I should do to raise that child; the question from society's point of view is what it should encourage me to do as a father (and then what to do should I fail in my responsibilities).

So I've got this hypothetical aggressive son; is it within my power — through deliberate socialization, discipline, economic leverage, and any other resource available to fathers — to make it more likely that he'll be a formidable, but responsible, wrestler than a formidable and abusive gangster? I'm comfortable — on scientific, social, experiential, religious, and any other grounds — saying, "of course."

This, however, is where the aforementioned scientific bent becomes dangerous. Somehow, Derbyshire — who makes his living as a politically conservative opinion writer — feels compelled (perhaps based on questionable source material) to argue against fellow conservatives who insist that parents are important in the lives of their children. Just as aversion to the asciencism of intelligent design proponents draws evolutionists to ground that defends an ultimately soulless construct of reality, narrow intellectual points beget heated arguments over assertions with which their apparently confused vessels do not even agree.

Thus, Derbyshire responds to Jonah Goldberg's paraphrase of "if [marriage] has no serious effect on kids," by declaring:

Where did I say that? I actually said, or pretty directly implied, the OPPOSITE thing when I said that the best thing you can do for your kids is to be successful enough in life to give 'em a nice bourgeois neighborhood to grow up in.

And yet, he feels it necessary to clarify that he includes, among the "parenting styles" that mean very little, "the complete absence of a parent." Noted: marriage does have a serious effect on kids, except perhaps when one parent is completely absent, in which case their home environment is a matter of "parenting style" — a modern illusion that flies in the face of "science... confirming folk wisdom."

Even here, though, he's revealed his exit strategy by arguing — much more specifically than his rhetoric would lead a fair reader to believe — against the strawman that "parenting style makes all the difference" (emphasis added). "I never said that it doesn't make some difference," he might say, "perhaps a great deal." But even that exit is covered by the smoke spewed when he put forward his initial assertion that, in modern studies, "the home family environment... dwindles away almost... to inconsequentiality."

I spent too many years spinning these maddening circles attempting to understand Andrew Sullivan's arguments about homosexuality to get caught in the trap again. I'd therefore be content to assign Derbyshire to the same "why does anybody care what he says" level of awareness that Sullivan now inhabits for me, except for the factor that makes, as I've said, his attitude dangerous. Married to the belief that "kids are tough, resilient little buggers" who will develop for better or worse largely outside of their parents' control is an aesthetic that applauds abortion as an expression of "natural liberty" and that wobbles out on this limb:

The desire of parents to have healthy children with a decent shot at good life attainments, is very strong. I don't see anything wrong with it; and even if I did it would make no difference, as the biotechnology is already upon us, and will be embraced enthusiastically by most parents. I share your horror of state-organized eugenics, but then, I nurse a horror of state-organized pretty much ANYTHING. I have no problem at all with "consumer eugenics," but state-organized eugenics, like, oh, state-organized "homeland security," would be a disaster. A total state proscription of abortion would be too. Liberty! That's why I call myself a conservative.

Behold the future of liberty! In which the temperament of children is not a thing to be addressed by loving parents who see them as special and important regardless of their difficulty, but rather a thing to be studied and perhaps, if sufficiently captured by that famously "ethically neutral" practice called science, to justify euthanasia.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 19, 2006 8:02 PM
Marriage & Family
Comments

Somehow, I doubt that abortion on demand, "consumer eugenics", and euthanasia are what Patrick Henry had in mind. As do many secularist liberals, Derb takes liberty to mean libertinism.

As with you, I've gotten tired of trying to keep up with Derb, as I did with Andrew Sullivan. He seems to just blurt out whatever seems convenient to his position at the time, with little to no regard for internal consistency.

By my count, he's pro-eugenics, pro-abortion, and pro-euthanasia (and now add on the claim that good parenting isn't important to boot). He's a materialist who believes that the self is an illusion, morality and religion epiphenomena of our genes, and he bases this on what he claims that science (and in particular Darwinism) shows. He's even said that he thinks Christianity is destined to cease existence in its basic form, under the weight of scientific facts. He simultaneously says that he's a Christian, and assures us that science as he construes it is silent on religion and morality, usually being quite nasty to his detractors on this point (and then typically whining when someone is less than genteel with him).

Frankly, it boggles the mind, and I sometimes wonder if there aren't two or three different guys writing for Derb. He'd actually be a lot less obnoxious if he'd just come out and say "I'm an atheist and materialist, I don't believe that there is an objective morality, and I think that science backs me up on this, but I consider myself marginally conservative due to a libertarian bent" even though I'd disagree. I tend to get frustrated when, in the words of Judge Judy, it seems that somebody is pissing on my shoe and telling me its raining.

Posted by: Deuce at June 20, 2006 10:16 AM

I spent too many years spinning these maddening circles attempting to understand Andrew Sullivan's arguments about homosexuality to get caught in the trap again.

I recently came to the same conclusion.

Deuce said,
He seems to just blurt out whatever seems convenient to his position at the time, with little to no regard for internal consistency.

Exactly. What makes him so irritating is his confident pronouncements, in particular in defending science, coupled with his obtuseness about various contradictions in his arguments. He's admitted several times that he doesn't "get" philosophy - it seems to me that one ought to be more reserved about making grand metaphysical statements if one admits that one doesn't understand philosophy.

Someone pointed out in the comments to a post at The American Scene that Derb is a pagan. The difference between him an more modern pagans like Andrew Sullivan is that he's comfortable using military force, and he favors tradition.

He is a pretty talented writer, though.

Posted by: Mike S. at June 21, 2006 5:16 PM
He's admitted several times that he doesn't "get" philosophy - it seems to me that one ought to be more reserved about making grand metaphysical statements if one admits that one doesn't understand philosophy.

Unfortunately, when he says that he doesn't "get" philosophy, I don't think he means that to be a shortcoming on his part, or an obligation to stay out of metaphysics, as I first assumed. I think he's chosen to remain ignorant because he's decided from the outset that there isn't anything there to "get", and that his materialist science is the only real source of knowlege (he essentially said that outright during his Himmelfarb-bashing debacle a few months back). Sadly, he seems to think that Steven Pinker is the only authority he needs to pronounce confidently on metaphysics.

Posted by: Deuce at June 22, 2006 10:12 AM