David Gelernter’s America-Lite

David Gelernter came to my attention in 2016, when he authored a provocative Wall Street Journal column on “Trump and the Emasculated Voter,” endorsing the former reality television star’s unlikely (and ultimately successful) bid for the Oval Office. The column itself was blunt, even acerbic, and made no concessions to the myriad political pieties that bloat so much modern opinion writing. More importantly, it pointed out an inconvenient truth that most politicians – the opportunistic Trump notwithstanding – were content to ignore: that the opinions of the voting public were becoming increasingly irrelevant to politicians and policymakers, who preferred to adopt the condescending tone of the schoolmaster, lecturing their constituents rather than listening to them. Take immigration, for example: as recently as two decades ago, it was taken for granted, on both sides of the political aisle, that a country had a right to police its borders and establish an immigration policy designed to serve the national interest. It was not controversial to suggest that unchecked illegal immigration undercut the bargaining power of low-skilled American workers, or placed greater burdens on America’s infrastructure, or might, over time, threaten the social cohesion of a city or state. Fast forward to 2019, and the Democratic primary debates featured a range of opinions far to the left of that consensus: illegal immigration should be decriminalized, for example, and illegal immigrants (now “undocumented migrants”) should have the same right to public services as American citizens.

Immigration is only one example, among many others, of a yawning gap between what the powerful minority of wealthy, well-educated Americans have come to believe and what the rest of America, reared on a very different set of values, norms and historical understanding, continue to believe. David Gelernter – once a revolutionary computer programmer, whose early work in parallel computation and the creation of the Linda programming language made him famous, and earned him a teaching position at Yale University – points an accusatory finger at academia, or “imperial” academia, which he accuses of systematically dismantling American culture. And his explanation for how the universities, once charged with propagating WASP culture, have since come to, in their words, “deconstruct” that culture, will be sure to rankle readers, particularly because Gelernter takes few pains to soften what he knows will be a controversial message: it was the increasing presence of Jewish intellectuals, both in the student body and among the professoriate, that dramatically shifted the tone and tenor of academic thought in America.

By 1970, the world had changed. Jews were a major presence among students and professors at the elite universities, and starting to make their presence felt in administration too. As the Jewish presence at top colleges shot up and burst into bloom, three Jewish attributes stayed the same:
1. Politically, American Jews are far to the left of the mainstream. (Thus Milton Himmelfarb’s famous observation that Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.)
2. Culturally, Jews have always admired intellectuals
3. The Jewish way of argument is expert and aggressive

Naturally, we would expect that an increasing Jewish presence at the top colleges would have these consequences:
1. The colleges would move left politically
2. They would move closer to the intellectuals’ worldview – become increasingly intellectualized
3. They would acquire a more thrusting, belligerent tone.

And this is just what happened. If the one thing we knew about postwar American society were the changing relationship of Jews to elite universities, we would have to expect a change in American culture: a leftward breeze. A slightly more intellectualized tone. And at the colleges, a less restrained presentation of views.

Of course, what happened was more than a breeze. It was a hard gale, toppling boats into huge seas, generating waves that chased each other and crashed tumbling together – waves of change created by the top universities, propagated through mainstream culture, and eventually washing ashore as big breakers on the quiet beaches of everyday American life, continuing right into Barack Obama’s presidency.

I quote him in full to give a taste of his bluntness, though now also seems like an appropriate time to add that Gelernter is himself Jewish, a “senior fellow in Jewish thought” at the Shalem Center, and possesses a Master of Arts degree in classical Hebrew literature. He is not writing an anti-Semitic polemic against Jews, nor would he accept for himself the label of “self-hating Jew.” He is also quick to point out the outsized contributions Jewish intellectuals, from Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz to Milton Friedman, have made to conservative thought in America. He is merely describing what he takes to be a fact of historical significance: “Jewish intellectuals, not as Jews but as intellectuals, were an important part of the flood that washed away American culture as it used to be; and they ranked among the cultural revolution’s most sophisticated, intelligent, articulate and belligerent voices.”

Of course, a slight “leftward breeze,” or a “slightly more intellectualized tone” are not fatal blows to universities. The problems came downstream, when the new universities began to act in a manner similar to the WASP-dominated universities of old, preferring to act as cultural replicators rather than neutral truth-seekers or disseminators of knowledge. Entirely new “academic” fields were founded, new departments funded, with explicitly ideological goals: women’s studies, African-American studies, even fat studies. The theories that became fashionable in these departments gradually crept into the history and literature and sociology departments, further influencing the political bent of the professoriate, and the generations of students they would churn out. Facts came to be disdained, knowledge itself suspicious; what counted, above all, was the underlying theory. “An intellectual is a theory maker,” Gelernter tells us.

Intellectuals sit on their front porches cutting, sewing, patching, mending theories. An intellectual’s job is to account for facts, or replace them, by theories. An intellectual substitutes for the intractable bloody mess called reality a seamless, silken tapestry of pure ideas.

He will later describe intellectuals as “cognitively nearsighted,” keeping their theories in focus while “the facts behind them go all fuzzy.” I submit to you, dear reader, that if this definition of an intellectual seems to you overblown, you have not spoken with a college graduate who matriculated in the humanities in the past two decades. To converse with such a person is to encounter a mind almost entirely devoid of factual knowledge – simply ask them for the merest details about the French or Russian Revolutions, for example, or basic facts about the history of their own nation – yet supremely confident in summing up (and subsequently dismissing as unworthy of closer study) centuries of human history as only so much oppression. A foundation in factual knowledge, the only basis upon which a human being can formulate their own opinions and conclusions, has been denied to these recent graduates, and consequently they can only fall back on the prefabricated jargon of their theories. (For a disturbing glimpse into how these intellectual sausages are made, read Peter Boghossian’s recent article “‘Idea Laundering’ in Academia.”)

Let me say, before concluding, that I was predisposed to like this book, and to agree with many of its conclusions. For my part, I can think of no more destructive or corrupted institution in the entirety of Western civilization than the modern university, which has churned out indebted know-nothings for decades now, all while happily taking in subsidies from the very societies it is busy “deconstructing.” But Gelernter’s blunt tone, together with this book’s brevity (under 200 pages), make it difficult to recommend to someone unlike me, not already convinced of its central thesis. He is witty and widely read, and provocative on every page, but he is consciously writing for an audience already sympathetic to his message. The PORGIs (Gelernter’s coinage: post-religious globalist intellectuals) whom he delights in criticizing are unlikely to warm to his acerbic tone. Then again, he might reply, they’re equally unlikely to pick this book up to begin with.