• November 24, 2014

Dreaming of a World With No Intellectuals

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Jordin Isip for The Chronicle Review

Are conservative intellectuals anti-intellectual? The short answer must be no. Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield, Wilfred M. McClay—conservative thinkers have championed scholarship, learning, and history. The long answer, however, is more ambiguous. Confronted by social upheavals, conservative intellectuals tend to blame other intellectuals—socialist, liberal, secular—as the cause. They perceive political unrest as rooted in fallacious ideas advanced by misguided thinkers and indict the educational system for inculcating subversion. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke denounced lawyers and writers—whom he called "these professors of the rights of man"—for their dangerous ideas.

A new book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) (Encounter), by David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, affords an occasion to revisit the issue: Do contemporary American conservatives scapegoat intellectuals and teachers? If so, they can claim an all-American pedigree.

William F. Buckley Jr. began his career in 1951 with God and Man at Yale, which lambasted his professors for their godlessness and socialism. Past and present American intellectuals on the right generally disdain economic or social analyses of political dislocations. They attribute socialism's appeal, for example, not to the condition of society but to the influence of nefarious professors and subversive writers.

Or consider feminism. Have women entered the work force and—as some conservatives say—abandoned the family? Does that have to do with the realities of war, say, in which men leave their jobs and women replace them? Or with the imperative of supporting a family when one paycheck no longer suffices? "A superficial explanation through economic changes is to be avoided," wrote Richard M. Weaver in one of the ur-texts of American conservatism. "The economic cause is a cause that has a cause," he declared in his 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. "The ultimate reason lies in the world picture, for once woman has been degraded in that picture—and putting her on a level with the male is more truly a degradation than an elevation—she is more at the mercy of economic circumstances."

To their suspicion of economic analyses of social issues, American conservatives add a suspicion of intellectuals as elitists. The aristocratic Buckley famously remarked that he would prefer to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. To Buckley, a random collection of Bostonians would prove wiser than liberal, overeducated professors. This position drew upon several features of an American ethos that prizes equality, no-nonsense religion, business, practicality, and self-help, all of which Richard Hofstadter analyzed in his classic work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).

Buckley was hardly alone in deriding intellectuals as out-of-touch elitists, an attitude that can easily slide into a wholesale denunciation of knowledge and education itself. What does schooling bring aside from an undermining of Christian truths?

That mind-set came to a head in the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee high-school teacher was charged with teaching evolution. William Jennings Bryan, the special prosecutor, saw the issue as religion versus the intellectuals, whom he dubbed a "scientific soviet." The "little irresponsible oligarchy of self-styled 'intellectuals,'" he said, forces science and rationalism on solid Christian folk. "Parents have a right to say that no teacher paid by their money shall rob their children of faith in God and send them back to their homes, skeptical, infidels, or agnostics, or atheists."

For Hofstadter, the Scopes trial "greatly quickened the pulse of anti-intellectualism. For the first time in the 20th century, intellectuals and experts were denounced as enemies." Hofstadter also noted—remember, he was writing in the early 1960s—that for many today, the evolution controversy is "as remote as the Homeric era."

No longer. Tennessee just passed a law protecting teachers who want to challenge evolution—and global warming. As one of the bill's supporters stated, the teaching of evolution was "extremely unbalanced." In other words, it was taught as true. The old battles are not over; indeed, the situation seems to be getting worse. For conservatives, conventional morality and religion are waning. Sexuality no longer seems contained or constrained. Men are marrying men. What's next? Interspecies marriage?

If the ills of modernity are intensifying, conservatives know why. They rarely mention hyperconsumerism or advertising or a rigidifying class structure—the byproducts of advanced capitalism. Rather, they dwell on the presumably corrosive ideas of the educated, especially the professoriate.

Correspondingly, many conservative politicians flaunt their unworldliness as proof of their virtuousness. Often their provincialism requires no flaunting. Anti-intellectualism flourishes in contemporary America. To the applause of conservatives, George W. Bush took pride in his C average at Yale University. Mitt Romney has sought to burnish his anti-intellectual credentials by complaining that the Harvard-educated Obama "spent too much time at Harvard." Romney, who has spent more time at Harvard than Obama, and has sent three of his sons there, explained that little can be learned from "just reading" or hanging out "at the faculty lounge."

Rick Santorum has also attacked Obama, this time as a "snob" for wanting everyone to go to college. Santorum, who has three advanced degrees and whose father was a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D., said he knows why Obama wants everyone to get higher education: so that students will be "indoctrinated" by their liberal professors.

How did liberals take command of higher education and derail America? The standard conservative interpretation is straightforward: 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.

Patriotism and families once flourished, Gelernter argues, and then patriotism disintegrated into bitterness, and the nuclear family crumbled. The proportion of children born to unmarried women began to rise in the 60s from 5 percent and has not stopped since, reaching 41 percent today. That is bad news for children, who suffer in every way from single parenthood. What accounts for these two phenomena—the fall of old-style patriotism and the traditional family? Easy. Intellectuals. "Patriotism has been beaten bloody and the family is on the ropes. It has been a great epoch for American intellectuals," Gelernter writes. How do intellectuals engender the rise of single parenthood? Again, easy—so easy that he does not explain, and never returns to the subject.

What he does try to explain is how intellectuals gave "an explosive left hook" to the old elite universities. There was a time when those elite schools were run by a benign establishment, generally white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who saw their role as civilizing and uplifting. But the WASP's were knocked out by what Gelernter calls PORGI's, "post-religious, globalist intellectuals," who took over and indoctrinated the students. Armed with empty leftist theories, the PORGI's transformed students into PORGI Airheads. The Airheads follow orders "as faithfully and thoughtfully as a bucket carries water."

Gelernter highlights the role of American Jews as "carbon 14," a way to trace the enormous cultural change and its consequences in higher education. Up through the 60s, the WASP establishment excluded Jews from elite universities. But by 1970, Jews had pushed their way into student bodies, faculties, and administrations. The consequences? Again, easy. Jews are both leftist and aggressive. "Naturally, we would expect that an increasing Jewish presence at top colleges" would imprint the schools with those qualities. "And this is just what happened." Colleges and universities became more leftist as well as more "thrusting" and "belligerent."

Gelernter is Jewish, and it is not likely that a non-Jew would airily argue that obnoxious leftist Jews have taken over elite higher education. But Gelernter does so with enthusiasm untempered by facts. Aside from quoting Jewish neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz as sources, Gelernter does not offer a single example of what he is writing about. Who are these belligerent leftist Jewish professors? Anthony Grafton? Steven Pinker? Richard Posner? Martha Nussbaum? Perhaps Alan Dershowitz?

Moreover, the entire formulation remains vague. What does it mean that colleges have acquired "a more thrusting, belligerent tone"? The whole college? The administration? The students? One might imagine that Brandeis University, founded in 1948 by Jews, would be a perfect example to verify Gelernter's argument. Is it loud and leftist? Gelernter does not mention it.

He has other fish to fry. In the 1950s, "America was properly proud of itself, and the economy was booming." Then the Jews and leftists took over—the PORGI's. Does the civil-rights or antiwar movement figure into Gelernter's account? No—or only to the extent that they were invented by the PORGI's. "Intellectuals and elite college students had conjured up the peace movement." They "captured the establishment," wrote the history books, and taught the college courses. By the 1990s, leftist intellectuals commanded the educational posts and produced a generation of leftist Airheads who elected an Airhead president, Barack Obama.

In his usual language, Gelernter opines:

"The nation is filling inexorably with Airheads, nominally educated yet ignorant; trained and groomed like prize puppies to be good liberals. ... Old-time conviction conservatives are also being supplanted—by puppy-liberal Airheads. Politicized schools are one-way streets; they all go left. American schools are a bizarre echo of the old Soviet schools, which used to teach that, whatever the issue, the USA was always wrong. Now American schools teach that, whatever the issue, the USA is always wrong."

Of course, Gelernter provides no information about this familiar charge by conservatives. He has none—or nothing that is new. It also seems strikingly off the mark. 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. A recent report in The New Yorker on the entrepreneurial spirit dominating Stanford University—titled "Get Rich U."—seems a more accurate reading of elite universities than Gelernter's belief that they are churning out Young Pioneers. Even the president of Stanford bemoans the fact that too many students are majoring in business, too focused on getting wealthy.

Gelernter's favorite subject is Obama, whom he detests. He recycles charges from his well-thumbed copy of "The Crimes of the Liberal Media, Tea Party Edition." He lambastes the "unctuous reverence" of the media for Obama, and cites specifically "the media's indifference to the anti-American hate speech of Jeremiah Wright, and to the nature and meaning of Obama's relations with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist." Those less partisan might consider those subjects aired ad nauseam. Needless to say, Gelernter says nothing about the media's relation to President George W. Bush or its support of the Iraq war.

For Gelernter, Obama "is not an ideologue; he does not reach that level. ... The president is an Airhead liberal who speaks out of ignorance and bases his opinions on nothing." Gelernter takes up Obama's declaration to close the Guantánamo Bay prison. Drawing on his usual conservative sources, Gelernter declares that Guantánamo is a well-run and humane prison with lovely accommodations. Those are "the plain facts, meticulously documented." But Obama (at least initially) sought to close the prison despite the facts. "The creeping suspicion began to grow, like the gathering shudder in a well-made horror film, that Obama had actually believed what he said during the campaign. He actually believed that Guantánamo was some sort of cruel, stinking hellhole." Obama based his ideas on the leftist "theory" that America is always wrong; he acted out of ignorance.

The suspicion begins to grow, like a gathering shudder, that Gelernter actually believes what he writes; that the learned scholar does not understand the central issue about Guantánamo. It is not how well the prisoners are treated—of course Gelernter does not breathe a word about torture—but the ethical and legal justification for holding prisoners without charging them, in a war on terror that has no end. 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," the suspicion grows that Gelernter is the real McCoy, an Airhead Conservative.

It should be noted that Gelernter was almost killed in 1993 by a mail bomb sent by a lunatic, the so-called Unabomber, who claimed some leftist credentials. For that reason, his animus toward the left is understandable. As a statement of contemporary conservatism, however, America-Lite is woeful—and revealing.

The "lite" in the title seems to refer to the book itself. For Tea Partyers the book might be red meat, but for anyone else it is packing material. It partakes of common conservative thought in its scapegoating of intellectuals: Leftist intellectuals are "the root cause" of all the ills of America. A trumped-up war in Iraq, unemployment, dead-end jobs, lopsided compensation, expensive higher education, unaffordable medical insurance, hyperconsumerism: None of that is relevant. Left-leaning thinkers are the sole source of America's problems—and they have even managed to increase the number of single-parent families.

Does Gelernter exemplify the contemporary conservative intellectual? He may well. On one hand, the popular political tide in America runs conservative. On the other, conservative intellectuals who embrace it seem strident and empty. Who or where are the conservatives who can speak with range, thoughtfulness, and openness? Fair-minded academics such as Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, and Jeffrey Goldfarb, a sociologist at the New School, have asked that question without finding a convincing answer. A course on "The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America" at the Citadel, a public military college in South Carolina, features Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Phyllis Schlafly, and the heads of the National Rifle Association and the Ayn Rand Institute. Are they the best that contemporary conservatism has to offer?

Take a snapshot of second-generation New York intellectuals—the actual offspring of the first—to gauge the soundness of conservative and liberal intellectuals. Compare William Kristol and John Podhoretz on the right to David Bell, Michael Kazin, and Sean Wilentz on the left. Kristol played a key role in making Sarah Palin the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008. He sang the praises of "Joe the Plumber" and opined that most "recent mistakes" of American policy derived from "highly educated and sophisticated elites." Podhoretz wrote a book subtitled "How George W. Bush Became the First Great Leader of the 21st Century," in which he enthused that Bush's "innovative" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "will serve as the blueprint for martial conflict for the foreseeable future." (New copies of Podhoretz's book are available through Amazon for one cent.) Bell, Kazin, and Wilentz, on the other hand, are all productive historians who have written significant books on French and American politics.

In brief, the former are ideologues; the latter serious writers and thinkers.

What's happened to intellectual life on the right? Conservatives may be succumbing to their default position. Most of the candidates for this year's Republican presidential nomination denied the veracity of evolution; and, according to various polls, Republicans increasingly distrust science. As the world becomes more threatening, many people seek simple answers, and many Americans conclude that an elite—from which they are excluded—must be the source of the ills. They turn on intellectuals, professors, and presumably the specialized knowledge those experts trade in. Instead of resisting that tendency, conservative intellectuals such as Gelernter encourage it. In their flight from elitism, they end up in a populist swamp peopled by autodidacts and fundamentalists. They become cheerleaders for a world without intellectuals, hastening a future in which they themselves will be irrelevant.

Russell Jacoby is a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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