Not a free speech issue

By Lorenzo

[SL: After a lengthy discussion with Legal Eagle and DeusExMacintosh, we have decided to revise our earlier ‘girls only’ policy and invite Lorenzo to be one of our writers. He has written half-a-dozen superb pieces for the blog over the last year, and if I see one more piece on his own site that makes me think ‘gee, I wish that were on my blog’ I think I’ll scream (it was the ‘moral adults’ piece that did it, I’m afraid). Please make Lorenzo welcome — I’m sure he’ll add a little about himself on our ‘About’ page in the next day or so].


If a private publication sacks a writer because they do not wish to be associated with his declared opinions, this is not a free speech issue. It is a branding issue, it is an employment issue, but it is not a free speech issue.

This is particularly true of a publication that is explicitly ideological in its role. (Using ‘ideological’ in its most general sense of having an explicit normative view of the world.)

The publication in question is the National Review, the premier magazine of American conservatism founded by the doyen of postwar conservative movement writers and activists William F. Buckley Jnr.

The author who was sacked was expatriate British journalist and writer John Derbyshire. He was sacked for this article in Taki’s Magazine.

If Derbyshire were to be prosecuted for publishing the article, that would indeed be a free speech issue. But National Review deciding that it does not wish to be associated with particular opinions, that is a matter of branding, of ideological identity, not free speech (as is, for example, being claimed here).

Colour awkward
The politics of race are endlessly fraught in the US and deciding that American conservatives are ipso facto racist is a common conceit among American liberals (using ‘liberal’ in its peculiar American usage) and folk further left. (That sometimes reaches the level of deciding that conservative support for black figures, such as Condi Rice, Justice Thomas or Herman Cain, is itself a manifestation of racism.) Without getting into the history of American conservatism and race, there are certainly historical reasons why the National Review might have some sensitivity on such matters.

There are also generational shifts. Younger conservative activists are post-civil rights folk. They accept civil rights as a positive feature of American history and are usually very against revisiting opposition to civil rights: young conservtive bloggers actively campaigned against Senate Majority leader Trent Lott after his implicit endorsement of Strom Thurmond’s opposition to civil rights, which led to Sen. Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader.

Either way, the National Review’s decision makes perfect sense. Particularly when leading the ideological assault on a serving black President.

Probability wrong
So, what’s wrong with Derbyshire’s article?

A pretty standard thing: a statistical tendency is not a defining characteristic. It is perfectly true that the homicide rate among black Americans is much higher than it is among other Americans. This is primarily a problem for other black Americans.

It is true that more American whites are murdered by blacks than blacks are murdered by whites. But if a minority group has a much higher homicide rate than a much larger group, it is to be expected that more members of the majority will be murdered by members of the minority than vice versa.

So, Derbyshire has a point then? No, Derbyshire is a statistical illiterate. The chances of any particular black person being a perpetrator of homicide is extremely low. A propensity to violence is not a defining, or even a likely, characteristic of any given black person; particularly a black person who is not young and male. But even a young male black is far more likely to be no risk than high risk. (Their high incarceration rate has everything to do with the insane war on drugs—the systematic, and grievously failed, attempt to deny people dominion over their own bodies—very little to do with any tendency to violence.) Indeed, young black males are far more likely to be the victim of homicide than a perpetrator [than any white person is].

Even if one accepts a genetic explanation for higher rates of hyper-aggressiveness in African and African-migrant populations, it is still not a likely characteristic of any given African or person of African descent. (Yes, I know we are all ultimately of African descent; I mean descended from folk who were not part of the prehistoric out-of-Africa diasporas.) It is Derbyshire citing averages, when the issue is likelihoods, that demonstrates his statistical malfeasance.

Focusing on someone’s blackness is not focusing on a risky characteristic. It is actually very bad advice to give a young person.

Which is another reason for National Review to sack Derbyshire.


  1. kvd
    Posted April 9, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Allow me to simply say that this is a seriously good decision by the proprietors with tresses. And thoroughly deserved.

    Now I will actually go read the post on something I’ve been following elsewhere.

  2. Patrick
    Posted April 9, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    For my part I think that’s a good call. I can’t wait for Mel’s reaction though;-)

  3. Eshays Adlay
    Posted April 9, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Derbyshire’s article goes a long way to explaining why anybody who isn’t black is in certain parts of the U.S. (Florida, Texas, LA and AL in mind) is quick to pop the trigger. Latent generational racism, palmed off as “wisdom”.

  4. conrad
    Posted April 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    That article could almost qualify as bad social satire. I had to look at the others to determine that it wasn’t.

  5. kvd
    Posted April 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    The politics of race are endlessly fraught

    That’s one of those statements I completely agree with, even though it doesn’t really make any sense – when you think about the actual words. Otherwise, I agree with the proposition that his termination was not a ‘freedom of speech’ issue.

    Not sure why you made the ‘civil rights’ comments? I didn’t take anything he said as related to an issue of civil rights per se.

  6. Posted April 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    John Derbyshire fails statistics forever (no, I won’t link to TV Tropes).

  7. Posted April 9, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: The civil rights comments go to why the National Review reacted the way it did and so swiftly. There is an element of generational change going on.

    I have also corrected an error and added a statistically informative link.

  8. Posted April 10, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    An excellently argued article; well done!

  9. Posted April 10, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: Thank you 🙂

  10. Ripples
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I am very pleased to see Lorenzo added to the blog as I have enjoyed reading and look forward to more.

    I agree it isn’t a free speech issue. I would agree with branding and employment law. In this if you don’t produce materials of a certain quality and said materials don’t meet the brand requirements then likely you are out. I see no real difference between a writer for a publication and a person working in fast food. Both can be reliant on a well-established brand for their market position. An employee who endangers this by their work or action would easily be a liability.

  11. Big ears lover
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Well, the powers that be have pulled the plug on Professor Bunyip’s forum about Anita Heiss’ book, ‘Am I black enough’. Freedom of speech in Australia is being stifled, and laws are being made to enforce it. It’s scary.

  12. Big ears lover
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    My mistake, it’s still open. For how long, though?

  13. kvd
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo I wonder if you’ve read this Gawker piece as yet, and if you have does it affect your consideration of Derbyshire’s original commentary? Just a polite query.

  14. Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] No I hadn’t. Having read it, no it doesn’t. (“Sacked” and “we are not going to publish you anymore” is a distinction without a difference.)

  15. kvd
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    (“Sacked” and “we are not going to publish you anymore” is a distinction without a difference.)

    Thanks Lorenzo. For mine, I thought that was the least most interesting thing in his comments. Not to worry; you’re obviously busy.

  16. Posted April 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    And sick. It’s the school holidays, I have lots of free time, of course I am sick. It is what I am in the school holidays. 🙁

  17. Patrick
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Look, I’ll bite and say that it is a free speech issue, in the positive sense. It is National Review’s free speech at stake, though.

    I did read the Gawker piece and it doesn’t really change my reaction. To be frank I would be just as scared of white or mahgrebin people dressed the wrong way in the wrong place as black people. And I did spend some time in the US albeit primarily in the very posh white enclaves surrounding DC.

    It may be as L says that there are more instances in the US particularly where the threatening groups of young males are black, but that doesn’t tell you, or certainly doesn’t tell me, so much about ‘black people’. Mutatis mutandis Mahgrebin in France, or for that matter Viets in Footscray, Melbourne!

    Pertinently, I would definitely be equally scared if not more of a threatening group of hispanics in the US.

    And I wouldn’t have anything against my daughter going out with any of the above (I’m lying just a little but about Mahgrebins). I would however be extremely suspicious of a Muslim suitor of any colour, not that that would seem to be a risk.

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