Interview: David Gelernter on America-Lite

In 1957, William DeVane, dean of Yale, made a casual statement that no one noticed at the time. But in retrospect it’s remarkable.

Our national leaders for the most part are men of integrity, idealism, and skill; our literary and artistic people command an international respect such as they never had before; our scientists and engineers, especially the latter, are the wonder and envy of other nations; our teachers in our colleges and universities are learned and devoted.

In 1957, Americans were pleased with America and proud of it. They had problems and knew it, but were undismayed.

Less than twenty years later, that proud confidence was gone, crumbled like mud-bricks into flyblown clouds of dust. “No one knows which way to turn and which way to go,” wrote the great essayist (and lifelong optimist, patriot, liberal) E. B. White in 1975. “Patriotism is unfashionable,” he wrote in 1976, “having picked up the taint of chauvinism, jingoism, and demagoguery. A man is not expected to love his country, lest he make an ass of himself.” The nation got over its low spirits, but Americans no longer speak about their country the way DeVane did back in 1957.

-- From the opening of Chapter One of David Gelernter’s new book,  America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats).  Today, if an American academic expresses any pride at all in America, he does so by modifying his statement with some variation of “yes but.” Or as an academic-turned-president said shortly after taking office:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

But what caused such a dramatic transformation? That’s the subject of the new book by Gelernter, who is also the professor of computer science at Yale University. During our 25-minute interview, David discusses:

  • We all know of the isolationist right in America on the eve of World War II.  Why aren't we as familiar with the numerous prominent liberal intellectuals who also opposed America's entry into that war?
  • 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 how opposition to Vietnam essentially predates the war itself, not the other way around.
  • The role of what Gelernter dubs "self-hating WASPs," and the changing role of Jewish intellectuals in the academy over the 20th century.
  • How Barack Obama is "the perfect superhero of America-Lite."
  • How a video featuring David earned him 549 "likes" -- and over five thousand dislikes from YouTube' viewers.
  • How the higher-education bubble (to coin a phrase) could be the opening for conservatives and other members of the non-Left to take back higher culture.

And much more. Click here to listen:

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For the rest of our podcasts, click here and just keep scrolling. The transcript of my interview with Gelernter begins on the next page.

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.

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.

MR. DRISCOLL:  The 1940s through the 1960s are the backstory of America-Lite.  Let's take things up to the present day.  What is Barack Obama's role in America-Lite?

DR. GELERNTER:  He is America-Lite.  He's the perfect hero, the perfect superhero of America-Lite.  He embodies everything that today's cultural elite stands for, starting with ignorance and continuing with prefab ideas that you were taught instead of having to reach yourself, ideas as political furniture, prebuilt in so that you never had to go out and worry about.  Your mind is furnished by your education with an automatic view on every subject.  You don't have to worry about reasoning for yourself.  You just wake up and you find them there.

I mean, after all, this man has degrees from Columbia and from Harvard, the creme-de-la-creme, the elite of the elite of American schools.  He's always associated with and identified himself with intellectuals, been strongly supported by intellectuals.  Never dirtied his hands in the private sector or what you might call the non-ivory tower part of life.  Always been associated with the intelligentsia and with the left; represents perfectly -- is the perfect hero.  The point is not so much what makes him distinctive as what makes him typical.

There are -- there are many thousands -- I mean, he's certainly very smart and very articulate.  He isn't typical in that respect.  But there are many, many like him who have been educated, who have come out of these same institutions, the Columbias and the Harvards, with exactly the same views, not because they reached the views themselves, by struggling with the opposition and trying to figure out for themselves what the right way was, but because all their teachers from childhood up have had exactly the same view on nearly everything, and have pumped that view into class after class of children.  And what do you get out the other end?  You get a country full of Barack Obamas.  You get -- or rather you get a cultural elite -- you get a cultural elite dominated by Barack Obamas.

MR. DRISCOLL:  You have several interviews that are posted at Bigthink.com at YouTube.  And I wanted to ask you about two of them, as they dovetail with some of the themes in "America-Lite".

First of all, you have one interview which has had over 56,000 views, 549 likes and 5,025 dislikes on “The Danger Of Crusading Atheists.” Whatever could you have said to upset the legendarily tolerant and articulate crowd of YouTube commenters?

DR. GELERNTER:  Oh, The Danger of Crusading Atheists.  Yeah, right.

You know, atheists might not be -- I think the cultural elite today probably doesn't deserve to be called atheists.  I mean, "atheist" suggests that you have considered and rejected religious views.  These people have no concept of what religious views are.  So I -- they're post-atheists, post-religious, as I call them in this book, the post-religious globalist intellectuals.

Yeah, they -- the fact that this country is a biblical republic, the fact that the ideas of freedom and democracy and equality came right out of the Bible, the fact that it was sermons to which the population listened, not only the Puritans, but the Anglicans, the Catholics, the Jews, they listened on Sunday or Saturday, in the case of the Jews, this is what molded the colonial personality.

It was the preachers; it was the religious culture of this country.  It wasn't Enlightenment philosophy.  Nobody read philosophy then any more than they read it today.  This country emerged from the Bible.  This is the biblical republic par excellence, as our greatest founding father, Abraham Lincoln, our last and greatest, saw so clearly in the greatest address in American history, the second inaugural address, which is exactly a sermon, which is a sublimely beautiful sermon in which Lincoln says this war is God's punishment of the North and the South equally for the sin of slavery.

This is at the center of our political life.  We are a profoundly biblical, profoundly Judeo-Christian nation.  That's just the way it is.  That's history; those are the facts.

And a lot of people don't like to hear them.  But certainly my colleagues in -- my colleagues at Yale and in, let's say, you know, academia generally, don't want to hear this -- but it's true.

MR. DRISCOLL:  And in another video interview with BigThink, and this sort of dovetails with the conclusion of "America-Lite", on the topic of the future of computing and the Internet, you casually mention that, "I think that universities, as we know them, will be dead in ten or fifteen years."  That's quite a dramatic charge for a Yale University professor.  How do you see higher education changing?

DR. GELERNTER:  I think it's going to have to change dramatically.  And I would say that certainly some institutions will survive.  The Yales and the Harvards, the Oxfords, the Cambridges, the Stanfords, don't deliver very much education.  Well, they do in technical fields, in science and technology.  But in the humanities, in the center of the university, they're doing very little educating.

On the other hand, the prestige of their degrees really buys something, you know, when you're looking for a job.  And so they charge a lot of money, but they deliver a product that's worth something.

But most universities have to get by on the strength of the education they deliver.  And most universities are delivering none, virtually none.  And students who pay enormous sums of money and parents, often, who help them or who pay, are noticing that their children -- and the students know when they're being phonied; they know what's phony.  They don't have to pay to listen to politically charged nonsense in the humanities and social sciences; not when the Internet offers such a convenient solution; not the perfect solution.

I'd much rather learn face-to-face than over the Internet.  But the Internet is a solution.  And the product is so defective and is so grossly expensive.  I mean, the two together mean that we are certainly going to see a -- the defectiveness and overpricedness of the product, combined with the Internet alternative, means that things are certainly going to change.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Last question: In your recent interview with Hugh Hewitt, Hugh described the tone of America-Lite as a rather gloomy prognosis for the nation.  Is it too late for conservatives to wrest the culture back from the left?  And if it is too late, where does America go from here?

DR. GELERNTER:  Hugh Hewitt is absolutely great, but I don't think it's really gloomy.  I mean, I -- there's certainly gloomy parts of the book.  But the conclusion is as upbeat a I could possibly make it, because this nation has been in worse trouble than this before.

I mean, if you look at where this nation stood in early 1942, when we were losing a war to the Japanese and we didn't have any -- we didn't have any weapons with which to fight, and we were being thrown back on every front; or a decade earlier, when we were facing a genuine depression and we didn't know what to do to the economic system to make it work again, we've got through much worse times than this.

We will get through these times so long as we open our eyes and take an active role and don't just let it all slide by.  We'll get out of it.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll with PJ Media.com, and we've been talking with David Gelernter of Yale, 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 once again very much for stopping by today.

DR. GELERNTER:  My pleasure.  And thank you.

(Transcription by eScribers.net.)