American Anti-Intellectualism? Russell Jacoby, David Gelernter, And The “Anti-Semitic” Canard
I won’t beat around the bush. I’ve known Russell Jacoby[Email him] now a septuagenarian fixture at UCLA, for about twenty-five years. Both of us served on the editorial board of Telos magazine and were present at some of the same board meetings. Jacoby always struck me as a lightweight, in contrast to most of the other editors, who were broadly educated and multilingual. I always knew he had some kind of cachet among Jewish-leftist magazine editors, but he was not in the same league as the others who were present at our board meetings—including the Jewish Marxists.
A recent issue of The Chronicles of Education carried an article by Jacoby with the ominous headline: “Dreaming of a World with No Intellectuals” (July 16, 2012). It is keyed to a new book, America-Lite: How American Academia Dismantled our Culture by David Gelernter, Yale professor of computer science, AEI fellow, maimed victim of the Unabomber, and a longtime favorite in neoconservative circles.
Jacoby finds America-Lite dangerously anti-intellectual and conflates it with what he claims is the GOP’s relentless crusade against intellectuality.
I find Jacoby’s article/ review snobbish, rhetorical and insubstantial. But I also think it reflects the continuing drive by Leftist gatekeepers to present the followers of Leo Strauss as the “serious,” socially-acceptable conservatives. And, tellingly, I note that Jacoby does not scruple to insinuate that Gelernter’s analysis is pervaded by anti-Semitism, although Gelernter himself is a very observant Jew.
One last relevant bit of information: The Chronicles of Higher Education doggedly rejected every request (there was more than one) that it review my book Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal. (See VDARE.com discussions here and here and here). The editors no doubt threw my expensive work into the trash bin, after shredding it.
Since they, like the editors of the New York Times, have displayed intense interest in Strauss and his disciples, this rebuff may seem surprising. Of course, it’s not.
Jacoby was commissioned by CHE to write his self-important sermon for the same reason that my book was unceremoniously pushed aside: The editors want to tell their readers what they think is good for them to know—rather than to confuse them with non-authorized versions.
Jacoby has written a widely on intellectuals. (The Last Intellectuals) But his operative term refers to nothing more significant than those who share his not very distinctive Leftist politics.
It is clear, however, whom Jacoby would not accept as friendly to “intellectuals” as he understands the term, starting with Christians who allegedly reject modern science. (Or at least that part of science that Leftists are permitted to embrace—their fanatical race denial in the teeth of mounting evidence to the contrary is, in fact, the salient case of anti-intellectualism in modern American intellectual life).
Jacoby also includes those who supported the Bush administration, and anyone who questions the merit of having women seeing themselves primarily as wage-earners and professionals.
Needless to say, none of these pariahs would ever be invited to a soirée attended by the author.
Jacoby never succeeds in proving his doubtful contentions. He simply states his opinions, which become valid by virtue of the fact that “intellectuals” in Jacoby’s circle hold them.
For example, he tells us that women have “entered the work force and—as some conservatives say—abandoned the family.” According to Jacoby, this economic-social change has to do “with the realities of war, say, in which men leave their jobs and women replace them” and apparently with something else which for Jacoby is axiomatic, “with the imperative of supporting a family when one paycheck no longer suffices.”
Who are all these conservatives (Heavens knows I haven’t met them) who are trying to get women to return to Küche, Kirche und Kinder? Are men going off to fight wars in such numbers that their wives have to take their jobs to make ends meet? What proof do we have of this?
As for the “imperative” of women working because “one paycheck no longer suffices,” my question is “suffices for what?” In the 1950s, when women generally stayed at home, nobody starved because of that decision, although the disposable income of a family of four was considerably lower than it is now, and so was the standard of living. If women today work outside the home, it’s not to avoid sinking to a subsistence living level but because American consumers want a more affluent lifestyle than they had fifty or sixty years ago.
Besides, a majority of women no longer find home-making and child-rearing to be socially acceptable, unless they can also be commercially or professionally active. But this is a cultural choice, not one driven in most cases by stark poverty.
Lest anyone think that Jacoby cannot imagine civilized conservatives, who are not “anti-intellectual,” he begins his tract by naming nice guys and one nice gal: “Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield, Wilfred M. McClay” are all “conservative thinkers” who have “championed scholarship, learning, and history.”
But the first figure, Burke, falls immediately from grace: Jacoby tears into him for making snide references to social dreamers in Reflections on the Revolution in France.
(Another apparent hero of Jacoby, Wilfred McClay, is a kind, tactful scholar and close friend of mine. Bill has never given offense, to my knowledge, to anyone on this planet. But nor is he someone who would raise deeply divisive questions in a public forum).
What immediately leaps out about the rest of the list: Mansfield, Himmelfarb, her late husband Irving Kristol, and their son Bill, have all been big fans of the Straussians—proof of the link, for Jacoby, between being a Straussian and being an acceptable “conservative” intellectual.
For liberal intellectuals, Straussians are acceptable because they and the Straussians are socially, ethnically, and to some extent politically alike. They all dwell on the ever-present danger of anti-Semitism (which David Gelernter apparently doesn’t care about) and also agonize over the Holocaust, which really didn’t end in 1945, but which continues to shape political and cultural attitudes here and in Europe.
Jacoby denounces Mitt Romney’s griping that, in his words, “Obama spent too much time at Harvard” and also Rick Santorum’s concern that expanding college education to more adolescents will simply enable them to be “indoctrinated by liberal professors.” He claims that Gelernter has given respectability to this anti-intellectualism by describing how liberals were able to “take command of higher education and derail America.” Jacoby’s summary:
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.
Jacoby is particularly concerned that Gelernter dares to note, in Jacoby’s paraphrase, that “obnoxious leftist Jews have taken over elite higher education.” According to Jacoby, Gelernter makes this accusation with “enthusiasm untempered by facts” and even has the temerity to quote Norman Podhoretz as a “source.” Gelernter, Jacoby complains, falsely associates Jewish leftists with the “more thrusting, belligerent tone” that has come to dominate American academic life.
I really wonder whether Jacoby is dumb enough to believe this, or whether it is an exercise in Political Correctness. A slew of studies are available, going from the (in my opinion) nasty but heavily documented studies of Kevin MacDonald to the sociological work of Stanley Rothman, that highlight the noticeable Jewish contribution to the radicalization of American universities.
I would also call attention to a dissertation recently accepted at Cambridge University and submitted by a young friend of mine, David Verbeeten, on the role played by specifically Eastern European Jews in radicalizing American Jewish culture.
Verbeeten shows that Jewish philanthropic organizations in the US were given a decidedly leftist edge in the 1930s and 1940s as Eastern European Jews replaced an older German Jewish leadership. The newcomers pushed Jewish organizations into promoting socialist and later multicultural agendas, over the objections of their predecessors. American Jewish civic and professional elites, Verbeeten notes, were generally conservative and followed the WASP upper class before this fateful changing of the guard occurred.
Jacoby’s attempt to counter the obvious by pointing to the relative tranquility of Brandeis University as proof that a college can be founded by Jews without thereafter becoming known for its radicalism.
But Brandeis from all accounts is conventionally leftist—hardly a bastion of educational traditionalists. Moreover, predominantly Jewish universities attract the Orthodox as well as the more numerous secular Jews. These Orthodox students and professors are more typically neoconservatives than standard leftists in their politics.
Finally, Jewish leftist academics now have the luxury of going anywhere they have well-placed allies. They need not confine their “thrusting, belligerent tone” to a Jewish enclave in the Eastern suburbs of Boston.
Someone recently joked with me that if Jacoby was looking for a Jewish academic who would contradict Gelernter’s alleged stereotype, he might have cited me! Of course, Jacoby would never want it to be known that he’s acquainted with me or my work. But, for his convenience, my VDARE.com work is available here.
Paul Gottfried [ email him ] recently retired as Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism His most recent book is Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.