Return of the 50-Foot Pointy-Heads

There's only one way to stop the attack of them thar Alienated Intellectuals -- bring back the Vassar Girl!

By Gary Kamiya
March 8, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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it never fails. When American conservatives are in a bad mood -- and they are really, truly pissed off right now -- you can count on them hauling a certain battered mannequin in a tweed jacket out of the closet and taking a few cathartic whacks at it. This figure undergoes various cosmetic alterations as the years pass, but the underlying type remains the same. In his present incarnation, he is the holder of the Gangsta Rap Gonna Get Yo' Mama Chair of Deconstructive Multiculturalism at Harvard. From this hideous fastness he corrupts young minds, preaching his repellent gospel of elitist relativism, secular humanism and disdain for flag, God and country.

In short, he is -- gasp! -- an intellectual.


After decades of whaling on "pointy-heads," "nattering nabobs of negativism," the "effete corps of impudent snobs," "members of the cultural elite," "countercultural McGovernites," "secular humanists," "card-carrying relativists" and such, you might expect the right to have grown weary of the sport. But you would be wrong. Comes now David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale, to fry them eggheads on a slow grill one more time. His piece -- free-associative, frequently ridiculous, but oddly fascinating -- is one of the stranger blasts from right field to appear in a while.

Gelernter's screed, which appears in the March issue of the neo-con journal Commentary, is titled "How the Intellectuals Took Over (And What to Do About It)." His thesis is simple: Everything wrong with America is the fault of intellectuals. An obvious question arises: Gelernter, a highly regarded professor at an elite institution and author of several books (and, unfortunately, one of the victims of an intellectual who went seriously wrong, the Unabomber), is presumably something of an intellectual himself. So, for that matter, are Commentary founder Norman Podhoretz and right-wing godfather William F. Buckley. Aren't they part of the problem, too?

Well, maybe they are. We don't know, because Gelernter doesn't deign to define what he means by "intellectuals." Preaching to the choir, he simply assumes that his Commentary audience knows, without being nudged, that "intellectuals" means "bad, alienated, left-leaning intellectuals," not "fine, well-adjusted, American-values-embracing intellectuals" like themselves.


"It is generally agreed that our big national change happened in the 1960's," Gelernter blandly asserts. Forget the Civil War, the Gilded Age, Progressivism, the Depression, World War II and the Cold War -- those were mere historical bagatelles compared to the lava-lamp 'n' R.D. Laing decade. (The intellectual elitists who have taken over Yale, flinching under Gelernter's mighty blows, can at least find solace in the fact that he does not teach history.) In that dread decade, Gelernter says, the bad, alienated, spatter-the-bourgeoisie intellectuals took over the faculties of the prestigious schools -- and it's all been downhill, culture-wise, since.

But weren't the Ivy League professors these eggheads dethroned themselves intellectuals? Here Gelernter's argument, which has so far been a free-swinging but uninspired variation on anti-'60s tracts like Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," PC-academic-tweaking screeds like Roger Kimball's "Tenured Radicals" and the anti-elitist tomes of Christopher Lasch, grows increasingly bizarre. "The universities have always harbored some intellectuals," he concedes, "but Harvard or Princeton students used to be mainly the richest, not the smartest; on the faculty, social connections used to be as good a criterion for tenure as any. The Yale man and the Vassar girl were social types, not incipient intellectuals ... At the prestige colleges today, the goal is to inculcate the intellectual's habits, not the lady's or gentleman's."

In one of the more unexpected bits of prose ever to appear in Commentary, which is published by the American Jewish Committee, Gelernter cites "the big influx of Jews" as a "dramatic sign" of the intellectualizing of college life. "The intellectualizing trend went a lot farther than bringing in Jews, of course, but Jews are a dye marker that allows us to trace a new class of people as it moves into the system -- a new class distinguished by intellect and not social standing." Somehow, one doubts that this sentence would have made it in if Gelernter weren't a member of the good old right-winger's club.


For Gelernter, the WASP Vassar Girl and the dumb but stolidly flag-waving, beaver-coat-clad Yale man were superior to their IQ-blessed but subversive, possibly Jewish, successors, simply because they provided better social cement. It is one of the many weird aspects of Gelernter's piece that he doesn't even bother to expand on this inflammatory point. Yoo-hoo, Dave! Remember, conservatives are supposed to defend "meritocracy" in the face of racial and gender preferences!

Gelernter's good old days, it becomes apparent, are modeled on those '50s science-fiction movies in which the "professor," a genial fellow barbecuing steaks on his suburban grill, is indistinguishable from the "doctor," driving around in his snazzy convertible, and the "banker," sitting in his wood-paneled office. And all of these worthies are on chipper, hiya-Charlie terms with the "janitor," happily cleaning up the bathroom. As Gelernter puts it, "the old elite used to get on fairly well with the country it was set over." Ladies were ladies, gentlemen were gentlemen, noblesse oblige reigned, and dinner table conversation was really, really dull.


Since that crew-cut time, the influence of long-haired intellectuals has led us into perdition. "You see the evidence everywhere of rule by intellectualized elite," Gelernter writes. His primary example: In an interview with Kevin Kline, David Letterman said, "you play a Frenchman -- French person." "It is one of those moments when the ground fractures and you see straight to the core of modern America," Gelernter writes.

Well, actually, you see straight to the core of a 1/8-inch sheet of plywood cultural veneer. Here, as throughout his essay, Gelernter reacts to irritating cultural flotsam -- dumb P.C. language strictures, the mandated gender integration of VMI -- as if they were the crucial problems facing the country. On the nation's gross and widening income inequality, the corrosive effects of consumer capitalism on public life, the continuing existence of a desperate and violent underclass, the collapse of manufacturing jobs and the disappearance of a viable working class -- on all these huge issues, for which Gelernter's fellow Republican ideologues have no answers and none of which were caused by the rise of some complacent former lefties to academic power, Gelernter is silent.

"Today's elite loathes the nation it rules," Gelernter writes. Wild, roundhouse swings like that sound great in right-wing campaign speeches, but they illuminate nothing. Even Christopher Lasch, whose analysis of "the revolt of the elites" is far more sophisticated than Gelernter's, got into trouble when he tried to speak for "the people." The fact is, "the people" -- and who would presume to sum up who "they" are? -- are subject to the same historical forces, suffer from the same alienation and observe the same values corroding as do the "elites." Gelernter has put his finger, however shakily, on something shallow, rootless, artificial, scornful and obscene in our age. But the problem isn't just with America's elites. It's with everybody.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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