Monday, October 17, 2005

The Problem with Conservative Academics

If you want to understand why there are so few conservative academics, consider the latest piece of drivel from Yale computer scientist David Gelernter. It appeared in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times. It carries the title “Adrift in a Sea of Phoniness,” and the subtitle “American political discourse -- especially on the left -- has abandoned logic, reason and honesty for a pack of nasty lies.”

Now, when I think of the abandonment of logic and reason in modern politcial discourse, I think of things like the Republican party's wholesale embrace of creationism, or their fanaticism on the subject of abstinence-only sex education. When I think of dishonesty I think of all the misleading and false arguments they made to justify the war in Iraq, not to mention the unbelievably sleazy campaigns they ran in 2000 and 2004.

But Gelernter can't be bothered with such trivialities. Instead he gives three examples of leftist dishonesty and illogic. His first example is far too vague to be assessed:

Recently, Vice President Cheney and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) disagreed. Rangel denounced Cheney, rudely. The VP denounced him back. Rangel's response: Cheney must apologize.

First, why should Cheney apologize and not Rangel? More important, note the ever more popular idea that politicians must apologize on cue like trained seals whenever a noisy enough group orders them to. Yet every 5-year-old knows that a coerced apology has got to be insincere. Otherwise it wouldn't need to be coerced.

Am I really expected to assess this situation based on Gelernter's four sentence description of it? If I am going to determine who owes whom an apology, wouldn't I need to know what each person said? Gelernter doesn't even tell us what the subject of discussion was, for heaven's sake.

And the point of a coercing an apology out of a politician is not to get a sincere declaration of remorse. The point is to so embarrass the politician in question that other people will think twice about offending the interest group in question. Every five-year old knows that. When the politician has said something genuinely offensive, this can be quite a good result. When it's a matter of a narrow interest group being hypersensitive, then it's not so good.

Here's Gelernter's second example:

A few weeks ago, [conservative radio talk show host Bill] Bennett said on his radio program that X is a stupid idea; then he said that if you believe X, you might as well believe Y. But Y is “impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible.” One thing we know for sure: Bennett is against Y. He thinks that Y is “impossible,” is “ridiculous,” is “morally reprehensible.” “Y” was the idea that aborting all black babies would cut the crime rate.

So the left jumped all over him. Bizarrely enough, the White House chimed in. (A Republican White House opening fire on Bennett is like the Joint Chiefs bombing their own front lines.) Yet no one who read or heard Bennett's actual statement in context could possibly have believed that Bennett is racist or had talked like a racist. (Emphasis in original).

Once again, no one not already familiar with the Bennett situation will have the slightest idea what Gelernter is talking about. As it happens, though, this time I do know the details. So let me remind you that recently Bill Bennett said the following on his show, as described in in this article from Slate:

“I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” Bennett volunteered. “That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So, these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.”

Incidentally, the Slate article linked to above has a good run-down of all the issues related to Bennett's statement. In particular, they point to several examples of right-wing pundits telling lies about what Bennett actually said. But seeing major television pundits lie to protect a colleague doesn't seem to bother Gelernter.

It is possible that if you go digging around in the darkest corners of the left-wing blogosphere, you might find someone who believes that Bennett supports the wholesale abortion of black children. But back on planet Earth the criticism of Bennett revolved around his bald assertion that aborting all black children would cause the crime rate to go down. That was the statement that brought all of the well-deserved heat.

And what terrible thing happened to Bennett as a result of this fracas? Bennett made an offenisve statement and various interest groups (including the White House, as Gelernter notes) criticized him for it. That's it. Did Bennett lose his show? Was he forced to grovel publicly? Not at all. So what is Gelernter so upset about?

Let's go to his third example:

Richard Lamm is the former Democratic governor of Colorado (1975-1987), now a free-thinking, self-described “progressive conservative” who teaches public policy at the University of Denver. In the journal of the conservative National Assn. of Scholars, Lamm has written about the time he submitted an article about racism to a university publication called the Source — which is run by the administration, not by students.

Lamm's submission compared the harm wrought by racism to the good that comes out of working to overcome obstacles. His article discussed the success of the Japanese, Jews and Cubans in the U.S.; all three have suffered bigotry and prospered. Mexicans in America have done less well. But Mexicans and Cubans are equally Latino and face similar kinds of prejudice. If Cubans have thrived and Mexicans haven't, racism can't possibly be the whole story.

Exactly the sort of provocative, challenging article any university would be proud to publish, right?

Only kidding. Lamm reports that the Source rejected his piece: "too controversial"; then he appealed to the provost, and then the chancellor. They agreed with the editors. Too controversial.

Golly! A journal deciding not to run a controversial article. Censorship at tis worst.

There doesn't seem to be much information available online about The Source, but I was able to find this page. The Source is described as “Denver University's award-winning community newsletter.” It is published not by an academic department, but rather by the Office of Communications and Marketing. This doesn't sound like a journal whose purpose is to hash out difficult sociological issues.

Why aren't there more conservative academics? Because conservatives are far more interested in sriking a martyr's pose than in making a decent argument for their views.


At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an interesting tie-in with the subject of this blog.

Back in 1999, Gelernter sat on a National Review panel that voted Michael Behe's book, _Darwin's Black Box_, as one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century. In fact, Gelernter was the only scientist on the panel.

Also, in 1997, Gelernter published a bilious op-ed in the New York Times claiming that religion was "suppressed in the public sphere" and misrepresenting the Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court Ruling.

Gelernter is a far-right hack, pure and simple.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Thanks for the additional information. I've read a number of Gelernter's pieces in Commentary over the years, but have yet to be impressed by any of them. I think you're right about his hackery.

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous wolfwalker said...


I agree with your contention that Gelernter doesn't even come close to proving his point. OTOH, I wonder if you realize that even as you neatly dispose of his examples, you're proving his basic point: there are a lot of academics who are venomously anti-conservative.

I mean, look at your own choice of words. "Latest piece of drivel" "Unbelievably sleazy campaigns" "conservatives are far more interested in striking a martyr's pose than in making a decent argument for their views." This is supposed to show that conservatives are wrong about academics being biased against them?

Creationists have a habit of pointing to the way that evolution-defenders turn angry and abusive at the drop of a hat, and using that to claim that the evolutionists can't defend evolution with logic and evidence. You know that's wrong; so do I; so does anyone who has been arguing with creationists for any length of time. We get angry and abusive because we've tried being reasonable with creationists and it didn't make any difference. Our best, most carefully researched, skillfully-written defenses of evolutionary theory were handwaved aside or ignored completely. It's enough to try the patience of a saint, and most of us aren't saints.

Did you ever think that perhaps conservatives get angry and abusive about the perceived liberal bias in academia for exactly the same reason: they've tried being sweet and reasonable about it, and it didn't do them any good?

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous jjramsey said...

wolfwalker, there is a difference between academics being biased against conservatives for their conservatism, and academics being blunt in their assessment of hackery done by conservatives. The conservatives complaining about bias are in a position more similar to that of the creationists than to the evolutionists.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Jason said...


What jjramsey said.

Gelernter's point in this essay was not that there are some academics who are venemously anti-conservative. It was that some shadowy group called `the left' is causing modern political discourse to be dumbed down and dishonest. As you were kind enough to point out, the arguments he made in that regard were very weak.

The term `latest piece of drivel' was directed specifically at Gelernter, not at conservatives generally. It is justified by the fact that Gelernter publishes a lot of op-eds and all of them, without exception, are drivel.

The `unbelievably sleazy campaigns' was obviously a reference to the Republican presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. I think it would be hard to argue that the Republicans were not very sleazy in both years; far more sleazy than anything I saw coming from the Democrats.

The comment about striking the martyr's pose was a response to the fact that virtually every right-wing media outlet in the country publishes articles like Gelernter's on a regular basis. These articles are invariably contentless, and serve only to tell the faithful that they are terribly oppressed. I stand by all three phrases.

I, for one, get angry and abusive with creationists because their writing is routinley dishonest and ignorant. I get angry and abusive with people like Gelernter for the same reason. There are actually a great many conservative academics who simply go about their business, publishing the best argumnents they can in the appropirate forums. For them I have nothing but respect. But the public face of conservative academia seems totally given over to whining and weak arguments.

When exactly have people like Gelernter tried being sweet and reasonable about things?

At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

Well Gov. Lamm did say that "The old have a duty to die and get out of the way of the young."

How old is he now? Maybe its time for him to do the "altruistic" thing....

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Go F*** yourself."

-- guess who?

At 3:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is his right-wing hackery why the Unabomber targeted Gelernter?
BTW, nomen non est omen, it seems, in his case. He doesn't seem very learned.

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous wolfwalker said...


I'm not saying you're wrong in criticizing Gelernter's column. I'm not saying you're wrong in thinking that some conservatives overstate the level of the anti-conservative bias in academia. I think you're right on both those counts. All I'm saying is that if you want to convince people that academics aren't biased against conservatives, you should be choosing your words with a bit more care. Phrases like "unbelievably sleazy" and "piece of drivel" are the kind of language I associate with demagogues intent on demonizing an enemy, not with sane and sober academics attempting to form a reasoned argument. If it's wrong for Gelernter to do that (and we agree that it is), why is it not just as wrong for you?

jjramsey wrote: "wolfwalker, there is a difference between academics being biased against conservatives for their conservatism, and academics being blunt in their assessment of hackery done by conservatives."

Is there an objective set of criteria by which one can tell the difference? I've seen cases where someone claimed to be doing the latter, but a bit of investigation found that they were actually doing the former. In the process they were dismissing perfectly reasonable defenses of the "hackery" for no visible reason other than that it was offered by a conservative. (To be fair, I've also seen cases that went the other way: what looked like anti-conservative bias turned out to be rational critiques of a flawed argument by the other side.) As I said, I expect that sort of behavior from demagogues, not from intelligent and rational academics.

At 12:38 PM, Anonymous zenegra said...

Generic Viagra




mp3 players
buy mp3 players
cheap mp3 players
wholesale mp3 players
portable mp3 players


purchase viagra
buy Cialis
buy Cialis

At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

jjramsey wrote: "wolfwalker, there is a difference between academics being biased against conservatives for their conservatism, and academics being blunt in their assessment of hackery done by conservatives."

wolfwalker wrote: "Is there an objective set of criteria by which one can tell the difference?

Yes. If you consistently attack conservatives, you are anti-conservative. If you consistently attack hacks you are fair. If you consistently attack conservative hacks, you are probably a little blind-sided.

Yes there is a lot more critisism of righ-wing wackos than there are of left-wing dittos. Personally I believe that's because nobody takes the radical lefties seriously anymore, whereas the right-wing nutjobs have done their dead level best to get their political appointees infiltrated into all levels of the US Executive and Judicial - and been rather too successful for my peace of mind.

At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this scholarship or just a barrage of personal biases? The right, the if everyone with an opinion has to be put in a box.


Post a Comment

<< Home