IN “THE SCIENCE OF INTELLECTUAL TRIBALISM”, Jonah Goldberg writes:
‘David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser.” — Washington Post, January 18
Um. Well, huh.
For those unfamiliar with David Gelernter, he essentially created parallel computing, which sounds like witchcraft to me, but I’m told it’s a really big deal. He was also one of the first people to see the Internet coming, in his 1991 book Mirror Worlds. Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, described Gelernter as “one of the most brilliant and visionary computer scientists of our time.” Ted Kaczynski — aka “the Unabomber” — agreed, which is why he maimed Gelernter with a letter bomb in a 1993 assassination attempt.
Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale and has degrees in classical Hebrew, has written books and articles on history, culture, religion, artificial intelligence, and philosophy. His acclaimed paintings don’t do too much for me, but that’s probably because I’m a bit of Philistine about these things.
Regardless, saying that Gelernter is “fiercely anti-intellectual” is a bit like saying Tiger Woods is fiercely anti-golf.
So what on earth could the Washington Post mean with that headline?
This is how Tom Wolfe defined the term “intellectual” in his 2000 essay, “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists:”
The word “intellectual,” used as a noun referring to the “intellectual laborer” who assumes a political stance, did not exist until Georges Clemenceau used it in 1898 during the Dreyfus case, congratulating those “intellectuals,” such as Marcel Proust and Anatole France, who had joined Dreyfus’s great champion, Emile Zola. Zola was an entirely new form of political eminence, a popular novelist. His famous J’accuse was published on the front page of a daily newspaper, L’Aurore (“The Dawn”), which printed 300,000 copies and hired hundreds of extra newsboys who sold virtually every last one by midafternoon.
Zola and Clemenceau provided a wholly unexpected leg up in life for the ordinary worker ants of “pure intellectual labor” (Clemenceau’s term): your fiction writers, playwrights, poets, history and lit profs, that whole cottage industry of poor souls who scribble, scribble, scribble. Zola was an extraordinary reporter (or “documenter,” as he called himself) who had devoured the details of the Dreyfus case to the point where he knew as much about it as any judge, prosecutor, or law clerk. But that inconvenient detail of Zola’s biography was soon forgotten. The new hero, the intellectual, didn’t need to burden himself with the irksome toil of reporting or research. For that matter, he needed no particular education, no scholarly training, no philosophical grounding, no conceptual frameworks, no knowledge of academic or scientific developments other than the sort of stuff you might pick up in Section 9 of the Sunday newspaper. Indignation about the powers that be and the bourgeois fools who did their bidding-that was all you needed. Bango! You were an intellectual.
From the very outset the eminence of this new creature, the intellectual, who was to play such a tremendous role in the history of the twentieth century, was inseparable from his necessary indignation. It was his indignation that elevated him to a plateau of moral superiority. Once up there, he was in a position to look down at the rest of humanity. And it hadn’t cost him any effort, intellectual or otherwise. As Marshall McLuhan would put it years later: “Moral indignation is a technique used to endow the idiot with dignity.” Precisely which intellectuals of the twentieth century were or were not idiots is a debatable point, but it is hard to argue with the definition I once heard a French diplomat offer at a dinner party: “An intellectual is a person knowledgable in one field who speaks out only in others.”
If that’s how the Post’s Sarah Kaplan or her headline writer define the term “intellectual,” then defining Gelernter as “anti-intellectual” is very likely quite justified. But as Jonah goes on to write in his essay on Gelernter, it’s not: “What Kaplan really seems to be getting at is that Gelernter is one of the few major intellectuals out there today who is critical of the intellectual establishment, which acts as a class or guild…“It takes a lot of intellectual firepower and self-confidence to declare that the intellectual emperors have no clothes,” he adds, so it’s no surprise that Gelernter “has been accused of being excessively humble.”
Speaking of emperors with no clothes, here’s what Obama’s “science” “czar” was proposing around this time in 2009:
That wasn’t the zaniest idea that Holdren ever floated. As the anonymous Bay Area blogger Zombie noted with quotes from his 1977 book, Holdren believed that forced abortions and mass sterilization were needed to save the planet from overpopulation. Those ideas that were all the rage among the scientific caste back in the ‘70s, who drank gallons of Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” Kool-Aid at the dawn of the Nixon era.
I don’t recall anyone on the left in 2009 speaking out and proclaiming Holdren as daft for wanting to fire rockets filled with pollution into the sky. Someone in the Trump administration should propose that as well, just for kicks and gins when he’s attacked as a lunatic by the media.