In “Dreaming of a World with No Intellectuals” in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Russell Jacoby of UCLA smashes into my book America-Lite with the finesse of an out-of-control 18-wheeler, destroying in the process (or attempting to) a whole raftful of conservative ideas.
In fact, Professor Jacoby’s piece demonstrates the left-lib intellectual in action so perfectly that I’d suspect it of being a parody — except for two spots in which his accusations are not just batty but loathsome. But in the end, his piece leaves a reader more sad than angry. We need a Left and a Right in this country. To see left-liberalism decay into an ugly rant is like watching the Obama administration’s collapse from all that glowing post-partisan hope and change to this week’s dirty ad accusing Mitt Romney of making a Democrat’s wife die of cancer. Word on the street is that Romney killed 30 men last Tuesday in a drunken brawl, and then tortured his dog to death — or (excuse me) that will probably be the next word on the street. Sorry to jump the gun. So it goes on the left.
Jacoby’s demonstration has two parts. First, he holds up to ridicule statements he regards as obviously false, but which are in fact obviously true. Intellectuals, as I argued in my book, are thinkers who prefer neat theories to messy facts. Second, he reminds us that bigotry has found a home on the left — which carries its stereotyped Conservative Moron around like the ghetto-blaster of a bygone age. Leftist stereotyping is so loud and all-pervasive that it leaves conservatives speechless, or at any rate inaudible. Evidently (please read on), the Left has no idea what its intellectual opponents actually sound like.
Jacoby dismisses my book’s argument as old hat, a mere repeat of conventional conservative wisdom in which “America progressed smoothly from Presidents George Washington through Dwight D. Eisenhower, but went to hell in the 1960s and has yet to recover. Radicals have taken over the universities and spread their poison. That is the gist of David Gelernter’s book.”
Nonsense. No one would write a book arguing that “radicals [i.e., left-liberals] have taken over the universities,” because everyone already knows it; no serious person, left or right, disputes it. The question is not what but why: Why and how did it happen? In 1940, our elite universities were roughly in cultural alignment with the country at large — with its Judaeo-Christian ideas, its patriotism, its proud American exceptionalism. By 1975, they had turned on mainstream America with a switchblade, and have held that pose ever since. Why did it happen? If they got along with America under FDR, why did they turn on America under JFK? And how did they take so much of the cultural establishment with them — newspapers, broadcasting networks, Hollywood, many professional associations, many public and private schools? Between 1940 and 1975, American culture turned upside-down. Why?
In any case, writes Professor Jacoby, the idea that humanities professors are pumping their students full of left-wing propaganda is “strikingly off the mark,” because “The humanities in general have been declining, and business and business-related majors increasing. In my experience, most students pay little attention to the pronouncements of graying leftist professors. Most students want jobs.”
Thus left-wing professors are no problem because, even if they do bloviate and propagandize in the classroom as a matter of course, no one listens to them, and besides they are old and gray and (presumably) dying out. But before they got old, I seem to recall that they ran their departments, including the tenure and appointments committees, plus the scholarly journals and meetings — and their junior colleagues did not have the luxury of paying “little attention,” did they, professor? So it’s no surprise, even in Professor Jacoby’s narrow world, that the young profs should be as far left as the old, or farther.
And why have “the humanities . . . been declining” anyway? Could it have anything to do with profs spouting propaganda, either as the main topic of their lectures or in those snide asides that conservative students so detest? — the ones that assume universal agreement that Romney is a moron, George W. Bush is a moron, Sarah Palin is a moron, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are evil, Fox News is evil, the Tea Partiers are evil morons, and so on and on and on.
“How do intellectuals engender the rise of single parenthood?” the professor asks mockingly, as if the proposition were so silly it refutes itself. “Again, easy — so easy that he [Gelernter] does not explain, and never returns to the subject.” Of course I explain — or rather I defer to James Q. Wilson for an explanation: “There is no more radical a cultural division in all of history than that between the attachment ordinary people have for the family and the hostility intellectuals display toward it” (1995). But the real point, again, is that Professor Jacoby seems genuinely in the dark about a proposition that any half-awake adult might explain to him.
Of course, as the professor sees it, conservatives are the ones who are blinkered and dumb — in fact, so dumb that “They attribute socialism’s appeal, for example, not to the condition of society but to the influence of nefarious professors and subversive writers.” But my book is about America, where socialism has no appeal. Of course, you might not know that if you had never left the scattered autonomous homelands of America’s elite campuses.
“Aside from quoting Jewish neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz as sources, Gelernter does not offer a single example of what he is writing about.” Professor Jacoby will find that, outside the autonomous homelands, Mr. Podhoretz is often cited; he is an important thinker, and an authority on American culture. In any case, it goes without saying that conservatives are far more apt to cite liberals than vice versa. Another of Gelernter’s outrageous assertions (no doubt), without a shred of evidence! So let’s take my book as an example. I find I have quoted, among others, E. B. White, Edmund Wilson, Norman Mailer, Lionel Trilling, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Julien Benda, Nicola Chiaromonte, Leon Edel, Sinclair Lewis, Philip Roth, David Halberstam, Anatole Broyard, James Patterson, and George Steiner — among such other flaming right-wingers as Marcel Proust, Henry James, and Emily Post.
I could go on, but Professor Jacoby reaches his peak in this accusation: “The suspicion begins to grow that Gelernter lives in a Manichaean world in which liberals are evil and conservatives blessed. Although he writes with his usual fairness, ‘There is an Airhead left but no matching Airhead right’ . . .” Of course this is Stereotype Number One, the idiot conservative too wrapped up in his guns, Bibles, and wretched nastiness to register subtle distinctions. In the book itself I find: “Neither ideology is inherently superior. Liberals can do good and do evil; conservatives likewise. . . . It is a simple fact that sometimes liberal policies (or those that are called ‘liberal’ by consensus) have proven correct; sometimes conservative ones have.” If that isn’t simplistic hate-mongering, I don’t know what is.
And I also find: “There is another more conventional but equally valuable way to understand the liberal versus conservative temperament. Some people’s political instincts are dominated by outrage or sadness at what is wrong, or seems wrong, and others’ are dominated by duty and devotion.” A classically Manichaean worldview.
And I also find: “The Princess Casamassima is, in the end, a luminously moving study of the delicate balance between liberal rage at injustice and conservative love of family, friends and country.” Damn him, that one-sided right-wing phony!
And I also find: “The line between normal and abnormal is always (in some degree) arbitrary. I spend much of my time in the art world, where I hope to be as tolerant of my homosexual friends as they generally are of me.” But I suppose this is what comes of turning up the propaganda so loud, for so long, that your hearing slips away without your even noticing.
Two of the professor’s insinuations are too low to deserve refutation. He insinuates that I am an anti-Semite. He insinuates that I turned conservative because I was hurt by a mailbomb built by a left-wing terrorist. If he did not intend these insinuations, I ask that he accept my apologies. If he did, he is dishonorable; and these are lies.
In the end Professor Jacoby’s arguments are so outrageously flimsy, one has to believe that he expected me to respond like Phèdre at a celebrated moment: Ah! cruel one, thou hast understood me too well! But alas he has understood nothing and, in the process, revealed everything; and left this conservative confirmed in his ideas, only sadder.
— David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University.