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Ed Driscoll

Interview: David Gelernter on America-Lite

August 24th, 2012 - 12:04 am

MR. DRISCOLL:  David, you mentioned intellectuals and Vietnam a moment ago.   Another topic explored in America-Lite is the symbiotic relationship between the liberal intellectuals who dreamed up America’s role in the Vietnam War, and the liberal intellectuals who opposed it. And as you write, opposition to Vietnam essentially predates the war itself, not the other way around. How is that possible?

DR. GELERNTER:  It’s an interesting thing.  Many people, when they look at modern American cultural history, they say, sure, it’s a more left-wing world, a world that cares less about duty and devotion and patriotism, more about a sort of blanket neutral tolerance for everybody and everything.  Things have changed.  And a lot of people said, well, it’s Vietnam.  You know, the war in Vietnam turned the country upside down and made us alter directions.  But that is not so.

The war — opposition to the war was a result of a cultural revolution that had already begun to happen.  I mean, we know, the so-called “new left”, everybody who has looked at the era of Vietnam is familiar with this phenomenon, the new left, who we associate with the hippies and the yippies and Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and many of the — Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda and that sort of person, the new left that led the mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam as opposed to the old left; the old left being Communists.

These — the Jane Fondas and Tom Haydens were more or less Marxists, but no longer wanted to call themselves Communists.

But the interesting thing is, that this opposition had begun to organize well before anybody in the United States had heard of Vietnam.  The so-called Port Huron Statement is a famous event in the creation of the new left in which Tom Hayden and his friends sit down and say we can’t stand this country.  We, college students, know a better way to do it.  This country is corrupt and its values are no good and so forth.  That happened in 1962.

Yeah, there were American advisors in Vietnam in 1962 and in Laos and in all sorts of other countries.  But there was no war in Vietnam in the sense that we know of it today.  That war heated up in 1965.  So — and if we look, even back to the 1950s, we find leading intellectuals, such as Normal Mailer, writing in a vein of destructive, violent bitterness against this nation.  The destructive, violent bitterness, the idea of what we have to do is tear this nation apart because this nation doesn’t deserve to be proud of itself, those ideas came first.

Then the war in Vietnam showed up and was opposed by these people who had already decided that this nation was not worth standing up for.

MR. DRISCOLL:  And I have one more question about the back story of America-Lite, before we take things up to the present day.  Your book explores the religious aspects of the revolution in American intellectuals in the 20th century, referencing both what you describe as self-hating WASPs and the role of Jews, who were both excluded from the academy during the first half of the century and vital to its transformation in the second half.  Is that correct?

DR. GELERNTER:  Absolutely.  You know, it is Norman Podhoretz, one of the — of our nation’s leading thinkers today, and one of the creators of modern conservatives, who said clarity is courage.  That is, if you want to be — have the nerve, have the honesty to be clear about what you are saying and what is happening.

American Jews are — were the beneficiaries of the tolerance, the newly tolerant attitude of American colleges and universities after the second World War.  Elite colleges, the Yales and Harvards and Stanfords, were bigoted institutions before the war.  They didn’t want Jews.  They certainly didn’t want blacks.  They weren’t that fond of Catholics, for that matter.  They were bigoted institutions.  And their move towards tolerance was unquestionably a beautiful move in the American tradition.

And at first everything went beautifully.  However, it is, in fact the case, that what happened to these institutions is that they were taken over by intellectuals.  The intelligentsia has always been a group that has held itself, in opposition to the Unites States, hostile to Judeo-Christian values, especially hostile to the Bible, especially hostile to religion, but hostile to the idea of patriotism; hostile to the idea of duty, devotion, loyalty to the country.

Intellectuals, the intelligentsia, took over Yale and Harvard and Stanford and — not as a result of a conspiracy.  I mean, it just — the gates were open.  The universities said we want the people who care the most about the intellectual tradition and score the highest on their tests and are perhaps the smartest.  And those people flooded in.  And it turned out that a lot of them were intellectuals.  A lot of them were members of the — what you might say, the card-carrying intelligentsia.

Just as American Jews have been leaders in modern conservatism, they were certainly leaders in pushing the American cultural establishment to the left.  They did that not insofar as they were Jews, but insofar as they were intellectuals.  But American Jews need to understand the
crucial — the central role that they have played in a cultural transformation of this country which, in many ways, has been catastrophic.

And I think the same goes for WASPs.  WASPs who — the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who built these institutions originally, back beginning in the 17th century, who built the institutions, who gave the money, who donated the buildings, who gave the books and the collections and staffed these colleges and served on the boards and were the fundraisers and built these institutions, ran them — ran them competently, although on an intolerant, bigoted basis; nonetheless, they didn’t do a lot of harm — right up through the end of the second World War.

Many of — just as the self-hating Jew who rather than being proud of who he is, proud of the Jewish religious and cultural tradition, takes out his hostility and bitterness, not only towards Jews and Judaism, but towards the United States where he happens to live, self-hating Jews are well known.

Self-hating WASPs are not as well known.  But we need to understand that many of the leaders of the left-wing cultural revolution, the cultural revolution that made us no longer proud of this country, that made it impossible for a president to say, we are a Judeo-Christian nation, that made it impossible for the Dean of Yale to look around this country and say we ought to be proud of who we are and what we are and what we’ve built, the leaders of the cultural revolution that created this disastrous change included prominent self-hating WASPs who were embarrassed about who they were, who hated the role they had played in creating this country, creating this institution.  The McNamaras and the Lowells and the McGeorge Bundys, these were members of the WASP aristocracy whose hostility and bitterness towards their own cultural achievements matched the hostility and the bitterness of self-hating Jews towards the Jewish cultural achievement.

There’s a lot more similarity between those two groups than has been admitted.  And the whole topic hasn’t been studied as it should be.  Not studied, it hasn’t been discussed, hasn’t been acknowledged the way it should be.

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