When the Right Hand Doesn’t Know What the Right Hand is Doing

So the editors at The American Conservative have finally decided to liberate that review of my book from their firewall.  You’ll recall that the reviewer—John Derbyshire, who’s a contributing editor at National Review—didn’t like the book at all.  But here’s one concession he does make to it:

On the positive side, The Reactionary Mind at least does not snarl or sputter. It is a thoughtful, even-tempered sort of book. The old maid tendency that dominates liberal polemic in the U.S.—the shrieking, clutching at skirts, and jumping up on kitchen chairs that one gets from a Joe Nocera, a Maureen Dowd, or a Keith Olbermann—is quite absent. For this relief much thanks. Nor is the book as immaculately humor-free as most leftist productions….

…he really seems to harbor very little malice.

Now here’s how the editors at The American Conservative summarize the review on the front page of their website:

John Derbyshire slogs through Corey Robin’s liberal polemic.

Now I know I’ve complained a bit about reviewers not reading my book. But editors not reading the reviews they run in their pages? That’s a new one to me.

Update (4 pm)

Alan Koenig, who is a grad student of mine—and a far closer reader of texts than I—points out that in his last graf, Derbyshire does call The Reactionary Mind a “book of early 21st-century American liberal polemic.” So perhaps Derbyshire doesn’t read his own prose either? Or am I just under the sway of a peculiar definition of polemic?


  1. V. Brandt November 3, 2011 at 3:34 pm | #

    Well, well! The most reasonable explanation is that the AC editors read the New York Times review instead of their own.

    Perhaps you should send the Derbyshire review to Sheri Berman/the NYT (after all, the fact that conservatives themselves don’t find you angry is the best evidence against Berman’s tone-deaf accusations). Then somehow start a rumor that the editors of The American Conservative not only read but actually heed that lily-livered liberal-loving NYT. (Breitbart might do the job creditably.) Said editors might then be shamed into reading the review *they* published, so that, finally, those who disagree with your thesis will be forced to argue its merits rather than its tone.

  2. E.D. Kain (@erikkain) November 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm | #

    Corey – no, he calls your book a polemic just one that’s not dominated by the “old maid tendency.” He’s not contradicting himself at all.

    • Corey Robin November 3, 2011 at 4:35 pm | #

      That I saw, Erik, but coupled with the “thoughtful, even tempered” claim, the lack of snarl and sputter claim, the absence of malice claim — it all seemed to add to something more than simply a claim that mine was not one kind of polemic, with the implication that it might be another, but instead a claim that it wasn’t a polemic at all. Given that a polemic is conventionally defined as “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions of or principles of another.” Not sure how one gets to a thoughtful, even tempered, non-snarling, non-sputtering, non-malicious aggressive attack, but that could be what he meant.

      • Paul Rosenberg November 3, 2011 at 5:38 pm | #

        Liberals are sneaky. Writing a non-polemical polemic is just further proof of that! Anything to make a good conservative like poor John Derbyshire look bad,

      • Patrick L November 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm | #

        You realize John’s British right? He’s using the word differently (and correctly) to mean a controversialist. It’s a slightly less harsh term in England where it’s associated with polemicists like Johnathan Swift and George Orwell.

  3. Corey Robin November 4, 2011 at 12:05 am | #

    Patrick: Interesting. I’d never heard that. Swift and Orwell: I can live with that.

    • William November 8, 2011 at 11:06 am | #

      Dr. Robin: I’m an American & I’ve not been under the impression that use of the word ‘polemic’ has to have a negative connotation. Your own definition cited above, “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions of or principles of another” is identical to Merriam-Webster’s online, verbatim in fact to definition ‘1a’. However, the 2nd half of that definition, ‘1b’, states it: “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.” But even the 1st part of the primary definition doesn’t necessarily suggest malice. That’s a presumption, I think, from the culture. So, with respect, I hardly think you can write off Derbyshire’s use of the term as you put it, “a peculiar definition of polemic.” Perhaps this misunderstanding is yet another example of Liberals losing the culture. Or maybe today’s relativistic society has less use for the important work of disputation, and thus assigns it with negativity. We must preserve the age-old maxim that ‘debate is the servant of truth.’ And we should always carry out this work with charity. Hopefully these have not become ‘reactionary’ principles.

  4. Chris Borthwick January 18, 2012 at 12:53 am | #

    Well, as to slog, he does say “None of this can surmount the book’s essential dullness, though. Why is it so dull? In the first place ……”
    Some nuance, yes, but not quite what you want for a jacket blurb.

  5. Chris Borthwick January 18, 2012 at 1:06 am | #

    And I would have thought that his views on your humour were less worthy of comment than this line;
    “Is there, in his opinion, any hope for rational government in a nation like Haiti, with a mean population IQ of 70? He probably thinks it unspeakably outrageous even to ask such a question. ”
    No concealment of frank racism there.

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