- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

The Imaginative David Gelernter

Conor Friedersdorf last week published an excellent interview with the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter.  [1] In it, he says that “the best scientists aren’t the dedicated drudges who have no other interests.

The best take after Newton, Einstein and tens of thousands of lesser lights in their devotion to science and other things too. As a scientist handing out advice on the study of science, something I do as a college teacher, one of my main messages is that you can’t be an educated human being on the basis of science alone; another main message is that, sometimes, you can’t even be a scientist or technologist on the basis of science alone.

If I were loosely gathering topics of study into categories, I might call them arts, religion, scholarship, and science. As important as scholarship and science are, arts and religion are more important. Those were my main goals (my wife’s, too) in educating our two boys, who are now both in their 20s. Arts and religion define, in a sense, a single spectrum rather than two topics. And this spectrum is where you find mankind’s deepest attempts to figure out what’s going on in the universe. A student who doesn’t know the slow movement of Schubert’s B-flat major op post sonata, or the story of David and Absalom, needs to go back to school and learn better.

He also says:

The ideological narrowness of mainstream commercial magazines is one of the deep, deep frustrations of my life.  We have a thriving conservative intelligentsia in this country; it includes many (in fact most) of the smartest people I’ve ever met. (Think about Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Bill Bennett, Donald Kagan—radically different sorts of thinker, all four strikingly brilliant. There are a few dozen more even at this exalted level.) It’s a pleasure and a high honor to be part of America’s conservative culture. But the Left hears nothing we say: nothing. Nothing. Most have shrugged this off; only a few of us care. Because I teach at Yale and, more important, because I belong to the art world & have since birth, I can’t help caring—and sometimes being outraged, sometimes just grief-stricken. What a damned mess we’ve made of intellectual life in this absurdly wealthy, lucky, blessed nation.

The Left hears nothing we say. I think that is true. Gelernter is not talking about popular conservatism, à la Fox News or talk radio. He’s talking about at the level of deep ideas. For example, there are some really interesting critiques of liberalism coming from intellectuals on the Right (I’m thinking about Patrick Deneen [2] and Ryszard Legutko [3], but there are others), but as far as I can tell, these are as yet making no impact beyond a smallish circle. The fact that Roger Scruton has been exiled from the academy is a scandal. As Gelernter writes, “Most have shrugged this off; only a few of us care.” It is fruitless to care insofar as an expectation that the closed, insular, immensely self-regarding intellectual caste in Western life will ever open its minds and its doors. But to think of where the lack of comprehensiveness, diversity, and vitality in intellectual life means for the future of our nation and our civilization — well, you can see why someone like Gelernter could become “grief-stricken.”

(Or you can laugh hysterically at the absurdity of it all. Follow the terrific Twitter feed of New Real Peer Review [4]for real-life examples of leftist crackpottery in academia. One imagines that if the academy had any real intellectual diversity in it, there would be a lot less of this nonsense in it, because it would have developed the antibodies to fight foolishness.)

When Gelernter complains about how hard it is to get a wide range of ideas before the American public, Friedersdorf pivots rather brilliantly to ask him for a few ideas that he, Gelernter, has wanted to get before the public, but hasn’t been able to because he hasn’t found the right forum. Gelernter gives him twenty. Some of them are odd, some strike me as not so great, others are brilliant — but all reveal an intelligence that is vibrantly alive, visceral, and engaging. Here’s my favorite:

We don’t understand great medieval churches properly.

The extent to which western churches are based on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is implicit in parts of the literature, but doesn’t seem to have been studied thoroughly, especially in the way that a Christian’s progression from the west-end to the sacred east-end recreates the pilgrimage in miniature—in the sense that the Christian’s steps trace an easterly path which is a literal part of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thus the font at which Christian life begins is usually at or near the west end. (Southern cathedrals such as Florence’s, with the baptistery as a separate building west of the main church, underline the start of the pilgrimage.)  A pilgrim heads eastward through the nave and arrives at the crossing; moving into the choir, he is usually approaching the high altar, east of the choir.  A saint’s shrine, in England especially, was apt to be east of the high altar (thus the Confessor’s shrine at Westminster Abbey, Becket’s former shrine at Canterbury, and many, many other cases).

The east end of the church is a re-creation of the Celestial Jerusalem—of Paradise, of the goal of the pilgrimage. This is true of the traditional French apse or chevet, concave to enclose the pilgrim—but also of the great eastern window at Lincoln (for example) or the glass wall at the east end of York or Gloucester. The English tradition of siting a lady chapel in the easternmost position—east of the altar, east of the shrine, as in Salisbury or Winchester or Exeter or Wells, and in some parish or former abbey churches (such as Abbey Dore)—underlines the pilgrimage theme. At Wells, for example, the great east window hovers above the altar. This is the main source of light from the east, the light of Paradise towards which a Christian life leads.

But beneath the great east window, light enters from a distance, from the beautiful reticulated windows of the octagonal lady chapel. Just as a choir within the west façades of Wells and Salisbury, singing through hidden sound-holes, welcomes pilgrims and processions into church on feasts such as Easter, the light of the easternmost windows sneaking in beneath the great east window, beyond the altar, calls pilgrims east, to the lady chapel and the celestial Jerusalem and Paradise.

Yes, and we don’t understand great medieval churches properly because we have lost what the medievals knew about the truth of the Christian faith, and how it is a pilgrimage. Our churches reflect the loss of the internal imaginative structure of the faith, and how the culture of Christianity (which includes church architecture) transmits that vision.

You really need to read the entire Friedersdorf-Gelernter interview. [1] More like it, please! Readers, I’d love it if you’d take a look at the piece and talk in the comments section about your favorite of his suggestions (or your least favorite). I wish there were a David Gelernter Quarterly to subscribe to.

43 Comments (Open | Close)

43 Comments To "The Imaginative David Gelernter"

#1 Comment By collin On February 27, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

The Left hears nothing we say. I think that is true. Gelernter is not talking about popular conservatism, à la Fox News or talk radio.

Again who runs the conservative Republican Party? While we know that there are plenty of conservative intellectuals, I suspect there is a lot of self-selection bias in universities because the private sector pays a lot more. I have always wondered if Ronald Reagan would been President today because he would have gone Fox News pundit ten years. (Or Sarah Palin career path if she was the surprise VP in say the 1976 election.)

[NFR: Intellectual life is not limited to politics. — RD]

#2 Comment By kgasmart On February 27, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

Liberals don’t listen because they figure they don’t need to listen; they assume all conservatism is of the Limbaugh variety. Limbaugh, Fox News, et al, has made it very easy to dismiss conservative “thought” as an oxymoron.

I used to to it myself, until I was finally exposed to some intelligent conservative voices… and then I had to check my assumptions. And found many of them wanting.

And I’ve changed my tune almost completely. With few execptions, I find that virtually all of the really intelligent stuff I’m reading is by conservative writers. “ [5],” though written under a pseudonym, is maybe a case in point. It’s a tremendous argument; it challenges me to think. I absolutely can’t say that about the typical fare on Slate or Salon of HuffPo or any other liberal outlet. But then, maybe liberal “thought” is starting to look like what conservative “thought” once did.

#3 Comment By Philly guy On February 27, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

Podhoretz,Bennet,Will and Kagan are the reason for the marginalization of the “conservative intellectual” movement.

#4 Comment By Jack Shifflett On February 27, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

Thanks for the link to the Friedersdorf/Gelernter interview. My favorite of Gelernter’s suggestion is #8, “We think with emotions as well as ideas.” My least favorite is #2, “Beauty is objective.”

As an aside, re: the Left not hearing what conservative intellectuals are saying: most people pay little attention to intellectuals of any kind. But you’d have to live in a cave not to be aware of George Will, who has been omnipresent in media for decades now and whose books, I’ll wager, easily outsell those of, say, Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes, not to mention Paul Krugman (and let’s not even mention Noam Chomsky).

#5 Comment By Steve S On February 27, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

One thing that is obvious is that the WashPo is full of sh!t when it calls him “fiercely anti-intellectual”. The man is clearly a genius with “fierce” intellectual curiosity and firepower.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 27, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

Will have to “read the whole thing” because the takeaway that surely resonates with and plays to Rod’s Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t do the same for me, sympathetic though I might be. Intimations of the rest are intriguing.

#7 Comment By Adam Rosenthal On February 27, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

He always has an interesting perspective, but I was very disappointed by his list of ideas. Very few seemed like big imaginative leaps to me, though they were of course much more thoughtful than most of us can manage.

#8 Comment By Hal On February 27, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

Having spent most of my adult life in graduate school in the life sciences, I greatly appreciate someone recognizing that the best scientists have other interests, but I’m afraid most of my peers in the field will take a long time to receive this wisdom. Academia is an incredibly competitive place, and the reigning expectation is that a person throws themselves into it with the strength of all-consuming passion. This isn’t necessarily to the exclusion of all other things, but scientists who allow those other things to intrude into their lives (and take priority over science) are often seen as “undedicated.”

I remember a professor of an advanced biochemistry course taking time over the course of the semester to read portions of a biography covering some important researcher (whose name and discovery escape me.) What I do recall, with absolute clarity, was a particular story. This research had just arrived in town for his post-doctoral position. With his wife, children, and all their worldly possessions still in the car, they stopped by the university for him to meet with his boss. Said boss, brimming with scientific enthusiasm, spent hours talking with the young scientist. Both so enraptured with the ideas they were to explore, the young man immediately set about starting several experiments, his family still waiting for him in the parking lot.

My professor at the time told us this story with pure admiration. What dedication! What passion! How clever those men were that they could set about changing the science as we know it right from their first meeting!

Sadly, sacrificing your life on the altar of science isn’t a guarantee of success; it’s merely your entrance fee. I thank God frequently I didn’t stay on that path.

#9 Comment By Sceptic On February 27, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

“Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Bill Bennett, Donald Kagan—radically different sorts of thinker, all four strikingly brilliant.” They’re not bad, but hardly what I would call brilliant. Why are they brilliant? Kagan’s interpretation of ancient Greece, at any rate as I see it reflected in his neoconservative son Robert, draws precisely the wrong lessons from Thucydides and from ancient Greece generally. For Robert, the strong SHOULD do what they can: and America is strong. Much the same can be said of Podhoretz and Will, who are in essence just the same sort of neocons.

It is wonderful that this scientist is interested in aesthetics and the humanities. That doesn’t mean we should take leave of our critical capacities when reading what he says. For example, his simplistic moralizing about Ukraine, based on no evident understanding of much at all.

Why focus on this particular conservative? I don’t really get it.

#10 Comment By The Wet One On February 27, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

From Friedersdorf’s article:

“To have peace, we ought to make sure that basically evil men are scared of basically good ones.”


This guy does know that the foregoing is how the U.S. helped to produce Osama bin Laden right? Arming the Mujahadeen in their fight against the USSR and all that. Right? He does know this.

Still though, let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. He has many useful thoughts.

#11 Comment By Jon Lester On February 27, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

I had to stop reading the Atlantic interview when he suggested we should have armed Ukraine and denied Iran its own self-determination.

[NFR: Then you stopped too soon. You don’t have to agree with him on those things (I don’t) to learn from him. — RD]

#12 Comment By BV On February 27, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

The Left doesn’t want to hear any critique against it. It believes it is the pinnacle of human moral development.

#13 Comment By Harvey On February 27, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

A few thoughts:

DG sez: “Jimmy Carter let the Shah fall and let Khomeini replace him. It was one of the stupidest moves in modern history.”

Let? The people of Iran have no agency? We were going to occupy a country of almost 40 million people to impose a government of a torturing authoritarian? Not a good start.

There is more along the same vein. For a person complaining about the closing of the American mind, he is awfully sure of the correctness of his opinion and the wrongness of those who disagree. Whose mind is closed, exactly?

#14 Comment By Charles Cosimano On February 27, 2017 @ 5:09 pm

Anyone dumb enough to think that beauty is objective is too dumb to think about much of anything else.

#15 Comment By p s c On February 27, 2017 @ 5:47 pm

Podhoretz, Will, Bennett, Kagan all for Iraq war failure and perpetual war in general. I think these men are all for open-borders and abortion/gay marriage as well.

What do they wish to conserve? Low taxes for the rich and low wages for the middle and working. Thank God for President Trump!

#16 Comment By Edward Dougherty On February 27, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

I have a ton of respect for what Professor Gelertner endured after his injuries from the Unabomber but if his standard is Will/Bill Bennett/Podhoretz/Kagan, then it’s no wonder the Left doesn’t listen. I don’t consider myself part of The Left and I quit caring what any of them said a long time ago (if I ever did). All four of them thought invading Iraq was a terriffic idea so there you go right there.

Also, Professor Gerlertner takes President Carter to task for letting the Shah fall in Iraq, completly forgetting how he mistreated his people (not that the mullahs were any better). This is just more of the thinking that America has to fight wars around the wordl to little positive effect. At least the hostages came home safely from Tehran under Carter. America can’t stop every evil in the world.

#17 Comment By ludo On February 27, 2017 @ 5:56 pm

Frankly, I found his comments disappointingly trite. I have no doubt he has a fine mind when it comes to his technical specialty, however, his comments regarding art, culture, literature, struck even as almost shockingly maudlin, naive, unoriginal, overly ideological in a decidedly uninteresting way. E.g. doubtlessly Mao and Stalin were tyrants, but I think it naive and unsystematically ideological to overly personalize history at the cost of analyzing systems and systemic historical processes,, in this case the European colonially rivalrous systems that contributed to the destruction of the ancien regimes in both Russia and China (and even Germany also following WWI), unleashing truly society-shattering revolutions in the process. These sanguinary revolutions did not depend on a Mao or a Stalin respectively, rather the latter two depended for their historical existence and importance on the former processes, the very proof of this is the parallel existence of multiple colossal sanguinary despots at the same period in time in historically important ancient, recently fractured autocratic empires: to wit, the German, Russian, and Chinese.

#18 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On February 27, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

May I simply quickly point out, the interview was published in The Atlantic magazine! Not exactly a right leaning publication. Not exactly a bastion of conservative thought. I find more reception to traditional conservative philosophy(Burke, Strauss, Kirk, etc.) in my liberal circles than I do progressive philosophy in my “conservative” (GOP, Trumpsters and 24/7 Fox fans) friends.

#19 Comment By Stubbs On February 27, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

The Left listens to what they say to the same extent as the Right listens to what serious intellectuals on the Left say. It’s not the Left media that abandoned serious conservative thinkers; it was the mainstream conservative media, which decided they’d make more money by being “populist,” for want of a better word. Steve Bannon is what counts as a conservative intellectual now.

#20 Comment By Jeremy On February 27, 2017 @ 7:03 pm


This guy is my kind of guy. I suspect that he and I differ on a number of issues, but Gelernter does not strike me as an ideological drone. Aside from the points you make above (which are excellent), here are some of the points he brings up that I think are interesting. Note, I am neither endorsing nor denouncing, but rather pointing out that he is thinking about things at a much, much deeper level, but the level at which he is thinking is not unattainably intellectual or profound. What makes this man’s intellect intimidating is its breadth, not necessarily its depth.

1.) “As to my answers, I’ve written & argued in Germany that (for example) computers & social nets ought to be treated like bars or strip joints: not acceptable for children. (At least we ought to consider treating them that way.) I don’t like the idea of legal restrictions. But I might urge that we get computers out of schools until our children are able to read & write half decently—at least as decently as they used to during the middle two-thirds of the 20th Century.These are local decisions. But a science advisor’s most important role is facing the public, not the president. A science advisor has to convince Americans that they’re out of their minds to turn their backs on science. It is foolish, dangerous, and a waste of a beautiful opportunity… AI presents tremendously serious moral problems which we leave to Kurzweil and friends. But in practical terms, there’s no way on earth I could get a piece from a very different viewpoint before a mass audience.”

2.) “The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology. But a citizen with faith in a political position, instead of rational belief, is a potential disaster for democracy. A religious believer can rarely be argued out of his faith in any ordinary conversational give-and-take. His personality is more likely to be wrapped up with his religion than with any mere political program. When a person’s religion is attacked, he’s more likely to take it personally and dislike (or even hate) the attacker than he is in the case of mere political attacks or arguments. Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way… Turn back to the generation after the Second World War. The collapse of religion is well underway, but there is another alternate religion at hand: art.” (Echoing Solzhenitsyn and Havel. The comment on art I appreciate, even if I don’t think it a replacement on the level that modern man is looking for).

3.) “Beauty is objective. Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.” – When was the last time anyone on either side of the divide mentioned beauty, period, much less that it is objective?

4.) In general, he seems to understand the great significance once placed on architecture. He understands that it can be objectively and transcendently beautiful and, therefore, can be art. However, he also favors modern architecture, which is the yellow wood at which our paths diverge.

5.) “It used to be that nearly all American children were reared as Christians or Jews. In the process they were given comprehensive ethical views, centering on the Ten Commandments and the “golden rule,” and God’s requirements as spelled out by the prophet Micah: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” As a result American were not paragons; but they had a place to start. Today many or most children in the intellectual or left-wing part of the nation are no longer reared as Christians or Jews. What ethical laws are they taught? Many on the left say “none, and it doesn’t matter”—a recipe for one of the riskiest experiments in history. The left, and my colleagues in the intelligentsia, need to come to terms with this issue. Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it.”

6.) “Where does a writer’s stuff appear?

A small, distinguished quarterly has asked me to write a piece explaining the more-or-less inevitable end of the colleges (which I wrote about in the WSJ a few weeks ago), and what will replace them. I’m grateful to them for asking, and will probably say yes. In a different world, I’d be writing the piece for a commercial magazine, and a general audience would actually read it. I’m a professional writer; I wrote a weekly culture-and-politics column for the New York Post in the ‘90s and the LA Times in the ‘00s. I’d rather write for a wider audience. But no commercial mag will touch me. One pays a price for one’s political beliefs. (Yet the price, in this society, is so trivial compared to what men have paid in living memory, the price they pay today in Islamic states, Marxist utopias and all kinds of tyrannies, that it is truly stupid, truly infantile to complain.)” – As a fellow writer, I share this notion.

7.) Points 8-10, relating to A.I. He is of the belief that it should be both logical *and* emotional. While I firmly oppose A.I. to the extent to which he seems to support it, it is an important issue that no one cares about. Read this section closely.

8.) “Who is history’s greatest composer? (I encourage my students to ask this sort of wildly unpopular question because it sharpens one’s critical understanding, and forces one to make choices.)… The composer is Franz Schubert; he died at 31, and none of his three competitors had finished masterpieces to compare with his at 31.” – I respectfully disagree. The answer is Bach.

9.) His final point, and a perfect point on which to end: “The extraordinary graphic power of new computers ought to have set up a blizzard of new thoughts and new work on images and the mind, teaching images, reading images, expressing ourselves in images. That it hasn’t, that it’s set up nothing, is one of the surest ways to see that western culture is almost dead––is surviving on royalty checks from heroes of the past.

But there’s still more than enough time to change everything.”

#21 Comment By TR On February 27, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

God help me, but I’m with Fram. I think you’re confusing an art history lesson for faith in a Risen Savior. If I ever become a believer again, I think I’ll forsake the Catholicism of my mother for the Calvinism of my paternal Ulster Irish ancestors.

#22 Comment By Robert Levine On February 27, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

Obviously a very bright guy. Sadly, not quite bright enough to distinguish between his opinions and actual facts, however. His attempt to prove that Schubert is the “greatest” composer is a perfect case in point.

But the Left hears nothing we say: nothing.

Perhaps because the Right is intellectually dishonest? The loud flapping sound out of CPAC was the sound for the Right madly flipping their positions 180 degrees from what they believed before the election on multiple issues. When the people whose voices count on the Right value intellectual consistency more than sucking up to power, I’ll be interested.

With a few honorable exceptions, including our host, of course.

#23 Comment By vlad the retailer On February 27, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

I am not surprised that David Hillel Gelernter is of course a neocon. He is also a climate change denier, a filer of crank lawsuits, and snobbish art critic.

Just as someone said that Donald Trump was a poor man’s idea of a wealthy man, David Hillel Gelernter, the author of “Americanism-The Fourth Great Western Religion” is a Trumpkin’s idea of a conservative intellectual.

#24 Comment By Al Kawi On February 27, 2017 @ 8:21 pm

Good on Friedorsdorf for interviewing Gelerntner. The interview was worthwhile and stimulating.

One theme that Gelerntner sounds but that I might question is this notion that prior to the arrival of large numbers of Jews to America in the 20th century America’s universities were both intellectually mediocre and zealously guarded bastions of WASP privilege. I have encountered this idea before. While there is certainly some truth to both aspects of the myth, I suspect that there is a good deal of exaggeration in Gelerntner’s worldview. My impression is that America did have a lively intellectual life and universities that were decent, if not yet stellar, already at the outset of the 20th century.

As to the WASPs, one might forget that they wrote the Declaration of Independence, established the US, and the dominant Northeast WASPs, led the country into and through one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, the American Civil War, in order to end slavery. They were not solely about preserving their own privileges, and they deserve at least some credit for the direction that America took during and after WWII.

Gelerntner seems to subscribe to the view that prior to the post-war period America had been hopelessly benighted intellectually and morally, and that Jews led the way in America’s redemption. That is an exaggeration.

Given the very impressive breadth of Gelerntner’s learning, I guess I was surprised to encounter this mythology about America in his worldview.

#25 Comment By Jeff On February 27, 2017 @ 8:40 pm

Who are the leading intellectuals on the right on the arts? I mean this seriously. I don think believe the four he mentioned are seriously engaged in the arts. I know one might say the New Criterion, though I’ve always found its cultural criticism almost always in the service of its political agenda (I admit that it’s been a few years since I’ve read it in print, and I enjoy the newsletter).

Besides, isn’t the typical conservative critique to decry this kind of thinking in the arts? Is James Wood really first and foremost a left-leaning critic?

#26 Comment By Joel Mathis On February 27, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

“The Left hears nothing we say.”

I think you insult a surprisingly large number of your readers with that, Rod.

[NFR: He’s talking about the elite intelligentsia, not the world of ordinary people. — RD]

#27 Comment By Brendan from Oz On February 27, 2017 @ 9:22 pm

Re Schubert: as he said, if Bach or Beethoven had died at 31, not so many Great Works. He also said that Beethoven’s later output surpasses Schubert. I’d place Bach’s Mass in B Minor over the Missa Solemnis, but that’s me.

There was a reason Schumann danced around the room in delight upon discovering the 8th and 9th Syms: everybody had a Beethoven problem regarding the symphony format after his 9th eg Brahms. Schubert showed a way forward.

But it’s an intersting point to argue, which is really all he said. I guess having the D960 as a personal favourite biases my view.

#28 Comment By Gus Nelson On February 27, 2017 @ 10:47 pm

Whether you like what Gerlenter said or not, he seems to be onto something about the breadth of understanding people have. Usually we’re worried people are a mile wide and inch deep; I think the problem is the reverse. People are a mile deep but only an inch wide. We know everything about a tiny little piece of the world, but almost nothing about the rest of the world. It is disconcerting that a molecular biologist and an art historian (for instance) have so little to discuss, when it’s likely a lively discussion between them about more than politics might actually benefit both (and their students).

#29 Comment By Alex (From SF) On February 28, 2017 @ 12:45 am

There’s not a small bit of irony in how Gelernter is making unfounded blanket assumptions about the left (“they hear nothing ”) making unfounded blanket assumptions about the right. Anyone remember how Obamacare was originally an idea from the Heritage Foundation?

#30 Comment By TheMoeSzyslakConnection On February 28, 2017 @ 1:17 am

“Arts and religion … is where you find mankind’s deepest attempts to figure out what’s going on in the universe.”

BS! I don’t deny the merits of these things, but are we supposed to buy that Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel, or carving of David, or da Vinci’s Mona Lisa are deeper “attempts to figure out what’s going on in the universe” than the work of scientists like Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Bohr? Bull****.

#31 Comment By AnnaH. On February 28, 2017 @ 5:50 am

Interesting interview. The thing is, many of his points used to be utter commonplace. This just goes to show that we have but a flicker of what was once Western civilisation and culture. Also, I don’t mind to offend American audiences, but the lack of knowledge of a second (third, fourth) language, and at least a superficial knowledge of European works of art and philosophy (coming outside of the realm of the English speaking world) is not helpful. I especially mean German philosophy and art. Surely there are political reasons for this, but you cannot just sweep aside Kant, Goethe, Brahms or Thomas Mann because of the Nazis. I am well-aware that everybody is getting stupider by the day in our age, including myself. However, it should matter what you inlcude in your cultural canon. Gerlenter may be an example to the contrary (he seems to know his German art and philosophy quite well), good for him.

#32 Comment By JonF On February 28, 2017 @ 6:10 am

RE: Today many or most children in the intellectual or left-wing part of the nation are no longer reared as Christians or Jews. What ethical laws are they taught?

Here we go again. “The Left has no ethics.” What utter BS. Yews, people on the Left have some marginal disagreements on issues of morality with people on the Right– mainly when it comes to policing other people’s bedrooms. But anyone who thinks the Left has no moral beliefs is invited to make a racist joke around some left-wing folk. They will be speedily disabused of that notion.

#33 Comment By Colonel Blimp On February 28, 2017 @ 7:12 am

Gelernter makes some good points, but he’s no paragon of sweet reason. The article reeks of a neoconservative fanaticism that is very far from being reasonable or wholesome. Arm Ukraine! Not keeping the Shah in Iran “one of the stupidest moves in modern history”. “Helping make the world a little safer and freer every time in every way we can”, i.e. relentless psychological warfare, gaslighting, war-mongering, and arms peddling to make the whole world America. Where the hell has he been the last 20 years? LARPing Rip van Winkle?

Dear sweet goodness Rod – read it. This is insane. This is the brainsick fever for neoliberal democratic capitalist hegemony that you yourself have denounced. Frankly, anyone who could describe Podhoretz and Kagan as ’eminent conservative intellectuals’ and keep a straight face is running in the philosophical equivalent of Wacky Races.

#34 Comment By Steve On February 28, 2017 @ 7:56 am

Jeff wrote:
“Who are the leading intellectuals on the right on the arts? I mean this seriously. I don think believe the four he mentioned are seriously engaged in the arts. I know one might say the New Criterion, though I’ve always found its cultural criticism almost always in the service of its political agenda.”
The New Criterion thinks of itself this way. But often (as Jeff notes) the impression left is one where the magazine’s political stances are driving its artistic coverage. Also, in being so hostile to late modernism and post-modernism in the arts, the New Criterion’s editors and writers end up championing a lot of mediocre stuff that is superficially “conservative” (i.e. representational painting) but also isn’t terribly good.

#35 Comment By RockMeAmadeus On February 28, 2017 @ 8:40 am

Somebody needs to remind Gelernter that it is because of the sacrifice and “martyrdom” of Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese followers of Khomeini that the ancient, beautiful cities of Damascus and Baghdad were not overrun by ISIS.

You see, facts matter even if you’re a “genius”.

Also we should remind him that when the US “refused” to arm the Kurds…yep, those Iranian Khomeinists stepped up and…

The same who overthrew the Shah and his CIA/Mossad trained SAVAK- and good for them.

So the “facts” show that the ones who are the most significant cause of “unspeakable suffering in the Middle East” are the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who support ISIS and the governments of the US, UK and France who support these regimes in the ME. As they did the Shah and their destiny is very likely the same as the Shah’s based on common thing in Judaism, Christianity and Islam called “Divine justice”- which is not exclusively reserved for certain selected religions or tribes and applies to all.

If Gelernter and the ones he mentioned are the best of western/American conservative “intellectuals”, then maybe the country and civilization they advocate deserves to decline and fall.

Good riddance.

#36 Comment By Dick Crumb On February 28, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

For me, #4 is the most important and relevant. “In the process they were given comprehensive ethical views, centering on the Ten Commandments and the “golden rule,” and God’s requirements as spelled out by the prophet Micah: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.””
As he notes, without a standard of right and wrong, our children are left rudderless. No wonder so many of our kids are turning to opiates, suicide, and living in their mothers basement. Because they have no ethical standard to be grounded by. The Judeo/Christian ethical education and grounding is way more important to the success of America than it is given credit for.

#37 Comment By Elijah On February 28, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

“But anyone who thinks the Left has no moral beliefs is invited to make a racist joke around some left-wing folk. They will be speedily disabused of that notion.”

@ JonF – I don’t think Gelernter means to imply that the Left has no ethical beliefs, but rather he’s wondering what they are and what they are grounded in. Are those ethics the vestiges of our Judeo-Christian heritage? Secular humanism? Some hybrid? Some folks on the Secular Right, for example, are quite obviously parasitic on a Christian morality; others point out all kinds of foolishness in the name of reason, but avoid any moral labels.

I just wouldn’t assume that Gelernter is asking in bad faith.

In my own mind, Gelernter’s points #8 & 9 are the most interesting. Clearly the technological innovations of AI are fascinating and jumping ahead rapidly. But its limitations are also pretty clear: enter Gelernter with the idea that we need emotion to think clearly, something not widely admitted. I freely admit that I have also been suspicious of men who claim to “know the mind” because of where and how it lights up as nitwits.

#38 Comment By Geoffrey On February 28, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

“Think about Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Bill Bennett, Donald Kagan”

These four have hardly been ignored. Best-selling books, prizes, honors; in the case of George Will (or at least his bow tie) the kind of quasi-celebrity that very few writers achieve.

Is the complaint that literary culture is in a decline? I suppose that is true but serious thinkers of all stripes get less attention than they used to.

#39 Comment By Hound of Ulster On February 28, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

The Right hasn’t been listening to the Left since Reagan, and has become a cargo cult of personality around Trump, after having been a cult of personality around Bush and Reagan. Trump took power because he sensed how degraded the discussion on the Right has become in last 25 years (see the reaction on the Right to the Clintons, who had more success implementing conservative policy than Reagan did (e.g. welfare reform) and were called the Anti-Christ by the Right for it.)

#40 Comment By Sheldon On February 28, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

“The Left hears nothing we say.”

Sorry, but I think that statement by Gelernter is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever read. I was a decades-long subscriber to Commentary, and pretty much read everything Norman Podhoretz has written. Ditto pretty much everything George Will and Bill Bennett have written, and much of Kagan. It’s not that we don’t hear them, IT’S THAT WE FUNDAMENTALLY DISAGREE WITH THEM. Podhoretz is a neo-con’s neo-con, who has been shilling for Israel’s extreme right for decades, as well as pushing neo-con policies like Bush’s war in Iraq for almost as long. I doubt even he would argue that the Left doesn’t hear what he says, as he’s been arguing with the Left for a generation. Will – is Gelernter really unaware of this? – has a column in that well known conservative paper The Washington Post, for God’s sake, and before that wrote a regular column at Newsweek and had stints at ABC News. He also won the Pulitzer Prize. Who doesn’t hear Will? Liberals are well aware that he also pushed for the war in Iraq (until he finally had to admit it was misconceived) and today he pooh-poohs climate science – and that he has also argued against Republican orthodoxy on some issues, coming out against Trump, for example. Bennett was Secretary of Education under Reagan, and again who doesn’t “hear” him? His Book of Virtues was a bestseller. But he is a long-time exponent of conservative ideas about Affirmative Action, school vouchers – and Bill Clinton, whom he spent an entire book attacking. Kagan’s histories are highly regarded by liberals as well as conservatives. His political views are what are at issue. Liberals disagree with these stalwarts of conservative thought. That’s not the same as not hearing them.

I can’t resist bringing up Trump’s statement the other day that, gee, “health care is complicated.” Ya think? Who’s not hearing whom?

#41 Comment By EngineerScotty On February 28, 2017 @ 6:00 pm

@ JonF – I don’t think Gelernter means to imply that the Left has no ethical beliefs, but rather he’s wondering what they are and what they are grounded in. Are those ethics the vestiges of our Judeo-Christian heritage? Secular humanism? Some hybrid? Some folks on the Secular Right, for example, are quite obviously parasitic on a Christian morality; others point out all kinds of foolishness in the name of reason, but avoid any moral labels.

I just wouldn’t assume that Gelernter is asking in bad faith.

Certainly, some of the (western) Left’s ethical beliefs are grounded in Judeo-Christian tradition–there’s plenty of examples of liberal politics drawing from Christianity. The Golden Rule is a principle found in many of the world’s great religions, and few on the left argue with it–indeed one complaint about the Right is that various factions therein capriciously exempt certain populations from its application.

The argument of the Left is that Scripture is neither a necessary nor sufficient basis for ethics, particularly in a secular democracy. “Doing no harm” is a key component of the ethics of the contemporary left, and we prefer to define harm in terms of tangible injury rather than violation of metaphysical claims.

Unfortunately, some in the religious right act as though all ethics must spring from the Creator, and that nonbelievers are therefore incapable of making moral claims. (Which doesn’t stop them from rejecting the moral claims of progressive Christians on equally specious grounds…)

The problem with Gelenter is that he’s every bit as dogmatic as the politically-correct orthodoxy he criticizes. And as others have pointed out–his views on foreign policy aren’t to his credit; though there will always be money to be made in producing intellectual defenses of the military-industrial complex.

That said–you gotta tip your hat to anyone who [6]. 🙂

#42 Comment By EngineerScotty On February 28, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

See also this:


Like I said before, whatever you think of his politics, Gelernter is one of the great ones in the field of computer science. I wonder if he and Noam Chomsky (who despite being a linguist, is also very important to CS) ever do lunch…

#43 Comment By SDS On February 28, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

Just goes to show………a genius in one discipline can demonstrate a complete ignorance in another……..