Going Public

Richard John Neuhaus, National Review, December 5, 1994.


The statistical data on which the book bases its conclusions about the cognitive differences between whites and blacks are impressive. And, since it would seem to be nearly impossible for anybody to prove the contrary, one can, for argument’s sake, stipulate that some differences do exist, more or less, and for reasons that have to do with, in whatever balance, both nature and nurture. It comes as no news that, in terms of life chances, it is generally better to be smart than to be dumb. And I expect that few people in any of the pertinent groups will be surprised by the suggestion that, as a generality, whites are smarter than blacks, Asians are smarter than whites, Jews are smarter than gentiles, and so on.

Intellectual mischief—questioning the taboos, suggesting the emperor has no clothes—can be fun. And it can be destructive. Society depends upon taboos and interdictions. Kindness is no limp or expendable virtue. Blacks will be hurt and infuriated by this book. White racists, of which there are not a few in our society, will relish it. Does this mean that we should prefer the untruth that keeps the peace to the truth that disturbs it? Of course not. But why was it so urgent to speak this truth, if it is truth, about racial differences in cognitive functioning? Why was it necessary to speak it in a way that—and surely the authors knew this—would make it the center of the discussion of their work? Especially when they conclude that there is little or nothing that can be done to narrow the cognitive gap among races? What, then, are we supposed to talk about? How unfortunate it is that blacks, all in all, are not as smart as the rest of us?

But people are already talking that way in private, the authors say. It is time to bring the subject out of the closet. Why? There are lots of things, very important things, that people discuss in private but not in public. The distinction between private and public is an important achievement of civilization. It was the crazy Left that tried to erase that boundary with its sloganeering about the personal being the political, and vice versa. There is an astonishing naivete in the suggestion that we should have a nice, polite national conversation about the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks. America is not an academic seminar limited to a few utterly dispassionate and socially disengaged intellectuals interested only in “the truth.”

We live in the United States of America, which, from its constituting compromise on white slaveholding, has been racked and nearly brought to ruin by conflicts inextricably related to race. The truth is that we are not capable of having a civil conversation on the question posed. We live in a world of limits, and we can live with that limitation, too. The incapacity can be embraced as an interdiction. So we won’t make the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks a subject of public discussion. What of it? Nothing is lost. No truth is denied, no untruth told. The authors give us no compelling reason for having such a public discussion, and there are compelling reasons for not having it. There are many other matters on which public debate should be generated, matters about which we can do something. But now there will probably be a long and bitter debate over the alleged cognitive inferiority of blacks, about which, if the allegation is true, little or nothing can be done.

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