Interview: David Gelernter on America-Lite
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll with PJ Media.com, and we're talking with David Gelernter, the professor of computer science at Yale University, and the author of the new book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats). It's published by Encounter Books, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookseller. And David, thank you for stopping by today.
DR. GELERNTER: Thank you. Good to be here.
MR. DRISCOLL: I must say, I really enjoyed America-Lite, but the title may not fully explain the scope of the book. You've given us a whirlwind tour of American intellectual history in the last one hundred years. Your book begins with two quotes that may be little known to many readers.
As you write, “Before the cultural revolution, America was assumed to be a Christian or Judeo-Christian society. As Britain struggled against Nazi Germany in 1940, President Roosevelt said in a radio address: ‘Today the whole world is divided between human slavery and human freedom between pagan brutality and the Christian ideal.’” And in 1957, William DeVane, then the Dean of Yale, praised the character of America's leaders in politics, the arts, and academia and praised the fruits of American culture itself.
At the risk of sounding like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride, is it safe to say that it's inconceivable for a man in either position to publicly utter such positions today?
DR. GELERNTER: Yeah. I think the sad thing is that it is inconceivable. You know, with respect to the FDR quote, when he says we're looking at the world under Nazi domination and Asia under the domination of the brutal Japanese Empire, we're seeing paganism versus our own Christian, Judeo-Christian values, that would still be true today as far as this nation. This nation is still a Judeo-Christian nation. That's what we are. That's what we were designed to be. This is a biblical republic.
But I don't know of any president -- no president would have the necessary guts to say that today, although it remains true. I don't think it is true of Europe anymore. I mean, Europe used to be part of this Judeo-Christian world and no longer is.
As far as DeVane's comment, you know, there isn't anything especially important in itself. It's just indicative of a mood that was so striking in the generation after the Second World War all the way up to the early 1960s.
When somebody like DeVane, who was a dean at Yale, one of the prominent culture makers, movers, big-shots in American culture, could look around and say we ought to take pride in where we are; our schools are first-rate; our professors are devoted; our sciences and our arts are -- and our engineering are models for the whole world; we're justifiably proud by where we are and what we have achieved as a nation, nobody would say that today, because there are no grounds for that sort of pride any longer.
And the question is, how a nation as extraordinary wealthy, as rich in resources, as rich in every sort of resources we are, how we could have lost that pride and that confidence and that excellence. We didn't just lose the pride; we lost the excellence of which to be proud. And we lost it within living memory. The early 1960s, a couple of generations ago, have still not slipped over the horizon. Many people, many older people remember when this country held itself to vastly higher standards than we're satisfied with today.
What happened? That's what the book -- the question the book asks.
MR. DRISCOLL: Well, another pair of items in the book may dramatically change how we view the history of 20th century intellectuals. Most people are familiar, on some level, with the isolationist right in America on the eve of World War Two. Why aren't we as familiar with the numerous prominent liberal intellectuals who also opposed America's entry into World War Two?
DR. GELERNTER: You know, I think this is a very good question and is a tremendously important point. People ought to know -- some people have heard of Charles Lindbergh and the American Firsters saying no we don't want to go to the rescue of England or Britain; we don't want to fight Nazi Germany; this is not our fight.
However, as you say, many prominent left-wing intellectuals, especially that grew around Partisan Review in New York, which was really the center of the American intelligentsia in those years, said this is not our war, exactly like Charles Lindbergh. They said, this has nothing to do with us. Hitler has nothing to do with us. This is a fight between imperialist Germany and imperialist Britain. They're both equally uninteresting and unworthy of being saved, and we want to stay right out of it.
Now, you know, that -- in the longer view, that's the way intellectuals generally react to events like this. It's exactly the same thing they said about Vietnam, and it's exactly the same thing they said about Iraq. But we have to remember, it's not as if they have a record of distinguishing between what is traditionally called a good war and a far more complicated war. Their view was as naively ignorantly amorally pacifist in the face of Nazi bestiality, the left was just as pacifist and uninterested in the moral questions as the far right.
And, you know, you also said why don't we know that? I think the answer is important. Because historians don't want us to know it. You know, the profession as historians, as part of the humanities scholarship today, it has been taken over by intellectuals. Intellectuals don't want to give themselves a bad name. Intellectuals don't want you to know the history of how the intelligentsia has acted and what it has done for this country.
Intellectuals are a left-wing interest group interested in promoting their own worldview and suppressing facts that are negative. And they teach what they want us to know. And there is a whole lot that our children, our students, are not learning, because they're not being taught, because the facts are being suppressed and withheld on purpose.