Friday, May 02, 2008

John Derbyshire on "Expelled," or How to Review a Movie without Really Trying

I have always admired G. K. Chesterton's dictum that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly, but I never appreciated the full scope of its application until reading John Derbyshire's recent review of Ben Stein's "Expelled" at National Review Online.

"What on earth has happened to Ben Stein?" asks Derbyshire. "He and I go a long way back." Are the two close? Are they old pals who have been through a lot together? "No," he says, "I've never met the guy." But wait. How can this be? How can Derbyshire have forged this bond of friendship with Stein without actually knowing him?

"Though I've never met him," he explains, "I know people who know him, and they all speak well of him."

Got it.

In fact, Derbyshire displays an amazing ability, far beyond that of the rest of us, to engage with people and things even though he has had no direct contact with them. Take "Expelled" for example. "So what's going on here with this stupid "Expelled" movie?" he asks--a question which could have been answered by the simple expedient of actually watching it. A man with Derbyshire's special talent, however, is not hampered by such constraints:
No, I haven't seen the dang thing. I've been reading about it steadily for weeks now though, both pro ... and con, and I can't believe it would yield up many surprises on an actual viewing.
That's right: Derbyshire reviews "Expelled" without actually having seen it! This is a man who has friends he has never met, and who can review movies he has never seen. It is perhaps fortuitous that Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review, recently passed from among us: this is a talent I am not sure he would have fully appreciated.

This ability to judge a movie without having to suffer the indignity of actually watching it surely sets Derbyshire apart. Who else could accomplish the task with so few tools: a little hearsay, a few second hand reports--and perhaps a Ouija board. This is a critical skill at which the rest of us can only marvel.

Most film critics attend screenings: Derbyshire conducts a séance.

And what does Derbyshire think of "Expelled" after not having seen it? Very little, it seems. "It's pretty plain that the thing is creationist porn, propaganda for ignorance..." One would think, given Derbyshire's method of reviewing movies, that he would have a greater appreciation for ignorance and the uses to which it can be put.

But with his judgment in the can, Derbyshire, like his friend Stein in the movie itself, goes hunting for answers. And what does he find? How could Stein have participated in such an unseemly project? "The first thing that came to mind," he offers, "was Saudi money."

That's right. Saudi money.

Now I will confess that the oil-rich Saudis are not high on my list of people in whose interest it is to explain the dinosaurs away. But as unlikely as this thesis may sound, we must remember with whom we are dealing here, and how far his apparently occult powers of perception seem to extend. Derbyshire may indeed have never met a Saudi, or even been to their country, in which case, who could contend with his knowledge on the subject?

Derbyshire himself has to finally abandon this explanation. "For one thing, Stein is Jewish." There you go. "For another, he is rich, and doesn't need the money." Too true. And then there is Stein's character, which Derbyshire testifies to on the basis of the long and intimate association that he has not had with Stein: "No," he concludes, "Ben Stein is no crook."

The kind of long, painful process Derbyshire goes through to conclude that Stein is not, in fact, motivated by men wearing white robes (No, not those. We don't need to suggest that theory, since it might involve another long thought process and derail Derbyshire from his greater purpose) is one he might well have chosen instead to apply to the merits of the movie itself.

But why bother?

One of the beauties of Derbyshire's sibylline method of reviewing movies is that it places the reviewer at a safe distance from the actual film itself, allowing the critic to say things about the film that are unconstrained by what is actually in it. The downside, of course, is that the reviewer may get it all wrong and look like a complete idiot. But it would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to place him in this latter category, largely because we have actually read his review, placing us perhaps too close to the subject for proper judgment.

But if one were looking for weaknesses in Derbyshire's review, they would point to things like his criticism of the quality of the graphics in the movie, which were actually quite good (though probably not as impressive when, as in Derbyshire's case, you don't actually see them), and to his uncritical acceptance of virtually every hostile allegation made against the production of the film.

But these indiscretions are tolerable compared with the alternative. The best defense of Derbyshire's critical approach of not directly exposing himself to the things he criticizes is to point out what happens when he does.

Although Derbyshire turns his nose up at actually seeing the movies he reviews, he is willing to get his hands dirty when it comes to creationists themselves. And indeed we have to admire Derbyshire's noble effort to actually get to know these people. It is admirable that he would lower himself to do this given the distasteful nature of the whole business:
Individual creationists can be very nice people, though they get nicer the further away they are from the full-time core enterprise of modern creationism at the Discovery Institute. The enterprise as a whole, however, really doesn’t smell good. You notice this when you’re around it a lot.
So even though Derbyshire has largely forsaken the direct application of his senses as a basis for making judgments, at least he has not lost all of them. He can "smell" these creationists, and, if they are not too densely congregated, he can even tolerate the odor. It is a measure of his commitment to the truth that, despite the offense to his olfactory sense, he is still willing to pursue it no matter into what unpleasant situations it might lead him.

One can imagine him, conducting his research at a local Baptist church social, reaching out to shake with his right hand, while holding a handkerchief to his nose with his left. For a man concerned with the very fate of Western civilization, it is a sacrifice he is willing to make.

Yes, Western civilization: This is what Derbyshire feels is at stake in the debate over Intelligent Design, and it is "creationists" who threaten it. And who are these creationists? They are "shifty," dishonest, nasty, and (I hesitate to repeat the term in the context of a Derbyshire film review) uninformed. They even have "bad manners."

Apparently, they weren't observing proper table etiquette at that Baptist social.

And to what can we attribute these moral shortcomings? Again, Derbyshire has a hypothesis. But, unlike the Saudi Theory of Why Ben Stein Supports Creationism, this one somehow makes it through Derbyshire's rigorous verification process: "My own theory is that the creationists have been morally corrupted by the constant effort of pretending not to be what they are."

His proof for this theory? The fact that many Intelligent Design advocates deny they are creationists. Now one explanation of why these people might deny they are creationists is the fact that they actually aren't. But this doesn't fool Derbyshire. No, sir. They are, he says,
a handful of eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories, and [who] set about presenting themselves to the public as “alternative science" engaged in a “controversy” with a closed-minded, reactionary “science establishment” fearful of new ideas.
Derbyshire does not offer any actual proof for this. In fact, he doesn't even give examples of the misrepresentations he says characterize the movie. "The misrepresentations in Expelled are far too numerous for me to list here, and the task is unnecessary since others have done it." After all, he didn't bother to watch the movie before reviewing it, so why should he offer actual proof of what is wrong with it?
Western civilization has many glories. There are the legacies of the ancients, in literature and thought. There are the late-medieval cathedrals, those huge miracles of stone, statuary, and spiritual devotion. There is painting, music, the orderly cityscapes of Renaissance Italy, the peaceful, self-governed townships of old New England and the Frontier, the steel marvels of the early industrial revolution, our parliaments and courts of law, our great universities with their spirit of restless inquiry.
It is on behalf of these testaments to greatness (and, oh, did he forget to mention good manners?) that Derbyshire charges Intelligent Design with "blood libel on Western Civilization." After all, would these achievements even have been attempted if it hadn't been for Darwin? Would the painting, and music, and architecture of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries have even been possible without the concept of Natural Selection? Is there any great building in Rome or Florence or Vienna that does not know owe its very existence to ...

Oh, wait.

Darwin didn't come along until the 19th century, did he? In fact, almost all of the things in Derbyshire's list of great Western achievements were accomplished by men who believed that this world was ... the product of design.

But what about science? We can't say that science isn't in danger from these dishonest, shifty, unmannerly people, can we?
And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone.
Of course, at least Stein has actually seen the world, which is more, Stein might respond, than Derbyshire has done with his movie. In fact, that a man whose preferred means of critiquing movies is akin to looking into a crystal ball would venture to criticize anyone for being unscientific is an irony perhaps too obvious for a mind as esoteric as Derbyshire's to notice.

Well, okay, but how about Rudyard Kipling, whom Derbyshire quotes as an example of someone who courageously manned the battlements in the defense of the West, and whose name he invokes as a model of how we too should stand in the fight against the barbarians, who now go under the name "creationists"?

Kipling? The author of the Just So Stories, in which the peculiarities of various animals are explained in mythological terms ("How the Camel Got his Hump," "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin," "How the Leopard Got His Spots")? That Kipling? Well, okay, he's not exactly the paragon of science, but I'm hip with that.
For shame, Ben Stein, for shame. Stand up for your civilization, man! and all its glories. The barbarians are at the gate, as they always have been. Come man the defenses with us, leaving the liars and fools to their lies and folly.
Trouble is, if it is Kipling's cause in which Derbyshire wants Ben Stein to join him, it is Derbyshire, not Stein who will have to rethink his position in order to do so.

I just want to see the look on Derbyshire's face when, after Stein has joined him on the battlements and they are singing their rousing war songs, they get to this particular stanza:

God of our fathers, known of old--
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

("Recessional," by Rudyard Kipling)

Oh, and we should probably point out that the deity referred to here is not Darwin.


Lee said...

Absolutely beautiful! I had subscribed to National Review since 1972, and stuck with it through thick and thin -- and then, a year or so ago, I just decided I'd had it with Derbyshire's writings. He is utterly unwilling to understand ID theory and to address it on its own terms, and absolutely incapable of rising above name-calling and arrogance. NR still has a lot of good writers such as Jonah Goldberg, Thomas Sowell, and Victor Davis Hanson, which makes it a shame, from my perspective, that they must share space with Derb's bilious rants.

Lady Cincinnatus said...

I too have not seen the entire movie "Expelled" but have watched several trailers and it's made clear that Ben Stein started out thinking he would find more information to prove natural selection and the basis for Darwinism, but HE DID NOT. Derbyshire sounds like an elitist, arrogant, idiot. This column was funny and witty and great. I'm now a regular reader.

Anonymous said...
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David B Marshall said...

I used to enjoy Derb, but he grows increasingly cynical, bitter, and irrational. A delightful response. I have seen Expelled, and know a few of the principals, though I continue to have mixed feelings about ID.

Derbyshire's hysterical worries over the threat to Western civilization from a little office of geeks in downtown Seattle reminded me of Moses in Prince of Egypt: "I can see it now! There go the pyramids!"

author, The Truth Behind the New Atheism

Sir Galen of Bristol said...

I think that in the spirit of Derbyshire's review, I will content myself with reading this excellent fisking of it, and pass on reading the review itself.

Martin Cothran said...

That's the spirit, Paul!

Anonymous said...

Great job.

I'm still laughing; and I plan on re-reading it, just to laugh some more.

Anonymous said...


I dare say you have delivered a Ciceronian smackdown of the Deranged Derb.