In a searing review of David Gelernter's America-Lite, which holds that academia has "dismantled our culture" and given us Obama, historian Russell Jacoby ponders the state of the conservative mind. It's more than a little sad:
Does Gelernter exemplify the contemporary conservative intellectual? He may well. On one hand, the popular political tide in America runs conservative. On the other, conservative intellectuals who embrace it seem strident and empty. Who or where are the conservatives who can speak with range, thoughtfulness, and openness? Fair-minded academics such as Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, and Jeffrey Goldfarb, a sociologist at the New School, have asked that question without finding a convincing answer. A course on "The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America" at the Citadel, a public military college in South Carolina, features Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Phyllis Schlafly, and the heads of the National Rifle Association and the Ayn Rand Institute. Are they the best that contemporary conservatism has to offer?
Take a snapshot of second-generation New York intellectuals—the actual offspring of the first—to gauge the soundness of conservative and liberal intellectuals. Compare William Kristol and John Podhoretz on the right to David Bell, Michael Kazin, and Sean Wilentz on the left. Kristol played a key role in making Sarah Palin the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008. He sang the praises of "Joe the Plumber" and opined that most "recent mistakes" of American policy derived from "highly educated and sophisticated elites." Podhoretz wrote a book subtitled "How George W. Bush Became the First Great Leader of the 21st Century," in which he enthused that Bush's "innovative" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "will serve as the blueprint for martial conflict for the foreseeable future." (New copies of Podhoretz's book are available through Amazon for one cent.) Bell, Kazin, and Wilentz, on the other hand, are all productive historians who have written significant books on French and American politics.
In brief, the former are ideologues; the latter serious writers and thinkers.
Here's where Jacoby scores most effectively, it seems to me. He captures the ability of the current rightist mind simply to ignore or wish away obvious massive facts of our time. Nothing that happened from 2000 to 2008 is really allowed into the conversation. The huge tax cuts that somehow didn't create jobs and widened deficits are absent; in fact we should cut taxes some more. Two failed wars are unmentionable; but we should invade Iran for exactly the same reasons we should have invaded Iraq. The soaring debt is all Obama's fault – and the GOP had nothing to do with it. And the enemy is always the intellectual leftist, or what Gelernter in an almost absurdist self-parody, calls PORGI's, or "post-religious, globalist intellectuals."
This is a partisan team-sport. It is the opposite of thinking. It is based on the necessity not to think.