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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reading List: We Are Doomed

Derbyshire, John. We Are Doomed. New York: Crown Forum, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-40958-4.
In this book, genial curmudgeon John Derbyshire, whose previous two books were popular treatments of the Riemann hypothesis and the history of algebra, argues that an authentically conservative outlook on life requires a relentlessly realistic pessimism about human nature, human institutions, and the human prospect. Such a pessimistic viewpoint immunises one from the kind of happy face optimism which breeds enthusiasm for breathtaking ideas and grand, ambitious schemes, which all of history testifies are doomed to failure and tragedy.

Adopting a pessimistic attitude is, Derbyshire says, not an effort to turn into a sourpuss (although see the photograph of the author on the dust jacket), but simply the consequence of removing the rose coloured glasses and looking at the world as it really is. To grind down the reader's optimism into a finely-figured speculum of gloom, a sequence of chapters surveys the Hellbound landscape of what passes for the modern world: “diversity”, politics, popular culture, education, economics, and third-rail topics such as achievement gaps between races and the assimilation of immigrants. The discussion is mostly centred on the United States, but in chapter 11, we take a tour d'horizon and find that things are, on the whole, as bad or worse everywhere else.

In the conclusion the author, who is just a few years my senior, voices a thought which has been rattling around my own brain for some time: that those of our generation living in the West may be seen, in retrospect, as having had the good fortune to live in a golden age. We just missed the convulsive mass warfare of the 20th century (although not, of course, frequent brushfire conflicts in which you can be killed just as dead, terrorism, or the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War), lived through the greatest and most broadly-based expansion of economic prosperity in human history, accompanied by more progress in science, technology, and medicine than in all of the human experience prior to our generation. Further, we're probably going to hand in our dinner pails before the economic apocalypse made inevitable by the pyramid of paper money and bogus debt we created, mass human migrations, demographic collapse, and the ultimate eclipse of the tattered remnants of human liberty by the malignant state. Will people decades and centuries hence look back at the Boomer generation as the one that reaped all the benefits for themselves and passed on the bills and the adverse consequences to their descendants? That's the way to bet.

So what is to be done? How do we turn the ship around before we hit the iceberg? Don't look for any such chirpy suggestions here: it's all in the title—we are doomed! My own view is that we're in a race between a technological singularity and a new dark age of poverty, ignorance, subjugation to the state, and pervasive violence. Sharing the author's proclivity for pessimism, you can probably guess which I judge more probable. If you concur, you might want to read this book, which will appear in this chronicle in due time.

The book includes neither bibliography nor index. The lack of the former is particularly regrettable as a multitude of sources are cited in the text, many available online. It would be wonderful if the author posted a bibliography of clickable links (to online articles or purchase links for books cited) on his Web site, where there is a Web log of comments from readers and the author's responses.

Posted at October 22, 2009 23:52