What’s wrong with society?
According to some on the intellectual right, it’s everyone on the intellectual left.
According to Russell Jacoby, that claim is yet another sign of the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary conservative thought.
In “Dreaming of a World without Intellectuals,” published on July 12th by The Chronicle Review as a response to David Gelernter’s America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats), Jacoby takes on the idea that America was just fine, thank you, until the 60’s, when campus radicals began the deadly revolution that continues to poison society.
I have no intention of reading Gelernter’s book — the title gives away its core biases without the bother of reading the rest of it. But I’ll gladly take any chance I can get to share vicariously in Jacoby’s evisceration of yet another right-wing champion.
Jacoby’s target is not so much Gelernter’s book (the pages of which he dismisses as “packing material”) as it is the core “argument” behind it. According to the conservatives, none of society’s ills are the fault of imperialism, inequality, or unbridled capitalism. Instead, they’re all the direct fault of those radical professors — mostly Jews, says the self-hating Gelernter — who have turned the universities into factories for liberal-indoctrinated “Airheads.”
Jacoby zeroes in on the right’s unwillingness even to consider that there might be real problems with society. Society is fine; it’s those leftists who are ruining things!
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.
After all, in their keen nostalgia for the 14th century, in Jacoby’s words, “What does schooling bring aside from an undermining of Christian truths?”
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.
I have written often here on similar subjects, although with less authority and less polish than Jacoby’s — although from time to time I have been able to match his tone.
Jacoby points out the hypocrisy of conservative pandering to the American distrust of learning, which so many associate with elitism. He notes that Romney, ‘who has spent more time at Harvard than Obama, and has sent three of his sons there,” speaks disdainfully of the benefits of a general education, which he derides as “just reading.” Jacoby recalls the primary campaign of Rick Santorum, a man with three advanced degrees himself, who claimed that Obama wanted everyone to go to college so that they could be corrupted by leftist professors.
That’s not the way it works, writes Jacoby.
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.
Yet Gelernter insists that wrongheaded leftist ideology is “the root cause” of all of society’s problems. With his typical scorn for the simple-minded misrepresentation of reality, Jacoby writes:
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.
In an American presidential election year, the most troubling feature of arguments like Gelernter’s is how much traction they have with right-trending voters.
It’s a shell game, of course, in which the inequities and imbalances that so burden today’s society are swept off the table, to rest safely unseen in the charlatan’s pocket while he waves a flag and sings “God Bless America.”
Is your mortgage company repossessing your house? Are you so far in debt that even the six low-wage jobs that are all the income that the three working-age members of your family can find barely cover the minimum monthly payments on the credit cards without which you couldn’t buy food and pay the medical bills that your long-gone union benefits once covered?
What’s going on here? Well, if rampant consumerism and cutthroat capitalism and the destruction of government regulation and social programs are immune to criticism, by ideological definition, what’s left?
That’s right — what’s wrong is what’s left.
It’s those damned elitist, know-it-all, Godless university professors who closed the factory and sent your job to China, who lost your pension fund to Wall Street cowboy investments, who bankrupted your government with unfunded imperial wars around the world.
Damn their eyes!