Dreaming of a World With No Intellectuals
Are conservative intellectuals anti-intellectual? The short answer must be no. Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield, Wilfred M. McClay—conservative thinkers have championed scholarship, learning, and history. The long answer, however, is more ambiguous. Confronted by social upheavals, conservative intellectuals tend to blame other intellectuals—socialist, liberal, secular—as the cause. They perceive political unrest as rooted in fallacious ideas advanced by misguided thinkers and indict the educational system for inculcating subversion. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke denounced lawyers and writers—whom he called “these professors of the rights of man”—for their dangerous ideas.
A new book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) (Encounter), by David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, affords an occasion to revisit the issue: Do contemporary American conservatives scapegoat intellectuals and teachers? If so, they can claim an all-American pedigree.
William F. Buckley Jr. began his career in 1951 with God and Man at Yale, which lambasted his professors for their godlessness and socialism. 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.
Or consider feminism. Have women entered the work force and—as some conservatives say—abandoned the family? Does that have to do with the realities of war, say, in which men leave their jobs and women replace them? Or with the imperative of supporting a family when one paycheck no longer suffices? “A superficial explanation through economic changes is to be avoided,” wrote Richard M. Weaver in one of the ur-texts of American conservatism. “The economic cause is a cause that has a cause,” he declared in his 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. “The ultimate reason lies in the world picture, for once woman has been degraded in that picture—and putting her on a level with the male is more truly a degradation than an elevation—she is more at the mercy of economic circumstances.”