David Gelernter: The Second Coming of What?
By Harvey Blume
The American Prospect,
December 4, 2000
December 4, 2000
In June, 1993, the prominent Yale computer scientist David Gelernter opened a mail bomb sent by Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who had singled Gelernter out as a leader of the technological revolution he despised. Badly hurt, Gelernter survived, and as a recent piece by him, "The Second Coming -- A Manifesto" ("http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/gelernter/gelernter_index.html") shows, his voice on matters of technology is as strong as ever. But during his long, painful convalescence, he began what amounts to a second career as right-wing political polemicist and culture critic. Picked for an unwanted celebrity by the Unabomber, he became something of a hero to conservatives -- an intellectual after their own hearts, an anti-intellectual sort of intellectual permanently at war with the liberal types conservatives see as dominating cultural discourse.
Gelernter's own contribution to conservative theory-building concerns a supposed transformation of the American establishment after World War II, culminating in what he calls "the coup of the intellectuals" during the War in Vietnam, which brought that war to a premature conclusion. Gelernter describes the takeover by intellectuals as a historic change in America's elite, full of consequences for how the country is governed. The old elite, in Gelernter's view, was in basic sympathy with the American masses; the new, intellectualized elite is hostile to them, as evidenced by its espousing the alien values of feminism and multiculturalism.
Gelernter is stingy with details about how or why this monumental change took place. The one event he constantly calls decisive is the dropping of quotas on Jewish admissions to colleges after World War II. Because this is the anchoring event of his theory -- "the Jews," he says "are a dye marker that allows us to trace a new class of people as it moves into the system" -- it's hard to separate Gelernter's rage against intellectuals from a rage against Jews.
Anti-intellectualism as a coded form of anti-Semitism is nothing new on the right. What complicates the picture in Gelernter's case is that he himself, as you needn't read much of him to discover, is an observant Jew, friendly to if not necessarily adhering to Orthodoxy. Gelernter's outspoken Jewishness prevents the inordinate and pernicious power his theory attributes to Jews from being more widely tagged as the anti-Semitism it is.
Still, none of this would matter much if Gelernter were merely another left/liberal -- he professes to have once, mistakenly, opposed the War in Vietnam -- turned neoconservative. But he's more than that; he is a deeply engaging thinker about technology, as it takes but a glance at the new manifesto to see. The problem is that you'd never know from his work that technology itself has brought a new class of people to power -- "knowledge workers," to use the phrase coined by Peter Drucker. Or that electronic media suffice to bring about radical changes in society whenever they are joined to mass markets -- whether or not there are a lot of college- educated Jews around.
"The Second Coming -- A Manifesto" begins where Gelernter's first book, *Mirror Worlds, or, The Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox -- How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean *(1991), left off. *Mirror Worlds,* the work that likely alerted Kaczynski to Gelernter, contains what is probably still the best example in recent literature of a technophile pitted against a technophobe in a debate about the value of technology.
Gelernter's inner technophobe warns that the advent of mirror worlds -- virtual worlds that faithfully reflect our lives -- will mean the loss of the sensations that go with real experience, and will eventually drain our lives of feeling. "The future is clear," asserts the fatalistic technophobe. "Know everything, feel nothing."
Gelernter's inner technophile replies: "Remember running, when you were a kid, just for the hell of it? Just for fun? *That's progress.* That's *forward motion *. . . . That is: transformed childhood joy. . . When you think of technology, *that's what* you ought to think of. The kid riding his bike, or sledding downhill, or charging over a grass field trying to get his kite to fly." Gelernter gives his technophile the last word: "I think you see much better for building towers, and going fast."
In the "The Second Coming," Gelernter moves beyond this dichotomy to a conclusion that could satisfy both sides. He maintains that digital technology will not always disrupt our lives with uproar about innovation, as it does now. In his view, a mature digital technology will be self-effacing, allowing people to "return with gratitude and relief to the topics that actually count." Gelernter proposes that this will come about by way of "cyberbodies," virtual structures that will house our "electronic lives." You will be able to tune into cyberbodies through any electronic device, and with no more no more fuss about operating systems, file formats and the like than is entailed in turning on a TV or using an ATM. Conveying elements of our experience to our cyberbodies will be so easy it will sometimes happen on its own. Gelernter posits a new kind of scanner, an "all-purpose in-box," that accepts any object as input, develops a 3 D transcription of it, and drops that virtual rendering "into the cool dark well of cyberspace." You will know the system is working smoothly, he says, "when a butterfly wanders into the in- box and (a few wingbeats later) flutters out . . . Some time soon afterward you'll be examining some tedious electronic document and a cyber-butterfly will appear at the bottom left corner of your screen. . . and moments later will have crossed the screen and be gone."
The manifesto boasts the same facility with language and the same abundance of ideas and fresh angles of attack that mark all Gelernter's writings on technology. *Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Computing* (1998), for example, Gelernter's last book, made a case for the indispensable value of art to the creation of good software. Teach "Velazquez, Degas, and Matisse to young technologists right now on an emergency basis," he demanded; the appreciation of art should be for "a scientist or engineer" what "jogging [is] to a boxer." In *The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought *(1994), the most sweeping of all his works, he put forward a theory of mind that both criticized computer science for failing to include feelings and other "low-focus" mental activity in its models of intelligence, and made for a fresh approach to religious mysticism. Not bad for someone whose reputation was built on breakthrough work in the rarefied realm of parallel processing. Gelernter brings all of it off with style.
In its sheer energy, these writings recall the boy in *Mirror Worlds* "charging over a grass field trying to get his kite to fly. "But as he recovered from the Unabomber's attack, Gelernter developed another persona -- harsh, harrowed, and more than a little monomaniacal. There's the trace of a boy in this persona, too, but a boy caught mid-tantrum and close to damaging himself in fierce displeasure. This posture darkens the political columns Gelernter wrote for the *New York Post* in 1998 and 1999, which, in their crackpot zeal -- and minus the humor that leavens much of his writing -- become painful to read. One column, for example, focuses on a model of African rain sticks his son brings home from second grade. Rain sticks don't really make rain, Gelernter duly reminds us; they therefore inculcate a dangerous disrespect for facts, for science, for "Western civ" itself. The educational system is tottering near collapse, intones Gelernter, because of too many "rain stick lessons."
The same penchant for harangue is evident in the art criticism Gelernter writes for *The Weekly Standard* where you are lucky to get through a few paragraphs about Titian, say, or the Ashcan School, or Jackson Pollock, without being taken aside for a severe hectoring. This is too bad, since Gelernter has a nearly synesthetic sensitivity to paint and color, and who knows where the criticism would go if he didn't feel compelled to mercilessly interrupt it with attacks on the intellectual elite he blames for everything from bad art in SoHo to depraved goings- on in the Oval Office and decrepit rail transport between New York City and New Haven.
The social theory that Gelernter relies upon is not original to him, and has gotten a lot of mileage in the last hundred years, though not from people he would care to be associated with. In general form, the theory is simply this: There was once a body politic, imperfect to be sure and not without inequities or internal conflicts, but still with basic values held undisputed throughout. Along came an extraneous force -- let us call it X -- that insinuated itself into key positions in society, ate away at the sinews of social cohesion, spread an alien morality, and effected a paralysis of national will.
A variant of this theory served the Nazis well as a vehicle for their Volkish rage against modernity. For them, of course, X equaled the Jews. For Gelernter, astoundingly, X also seems to equal the Jews, whom he describes repeatedly as the most conspicuous element -- the "dye marker" -- of the liberal intelligentsia that has seized control of the central organs of American public opinion. With the dropping of quotas on Jewish admission to colleges, the American elite, all at once, according to Gelernter, loses its commonalty with the masses, and is intellectualized. And this newly intellectualized -- or is it Judaized? -- elite, Gelernter makes it plain, entirely "loathes the nation it rules."
As did, according to the Nazis, the Jewish elite that trampled on the German masses. The parallel between the Nazi's use of this theory and Gelernter's holds, right down to its application in explaining catastrophic defeat in war. For the Nazis, Jewish subversion of the war effort was the reason Germany lost the First World War. For Gelernter, the will to pursue the war effort in Vietnam to a victorious conclusion was stymied, as noted, by the coup of the intellectuals. Because America suffered intervention interruptus, Americans are now subjected to shame, disgrace, and an agonizing loss of faith in our institutions. Nowhere does Gelernter pause to consider the self-disgust Americans with any conscience would now experience if this country had pursued the War in Vietnam -- beyond even the 60,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dead -- to some specter of victory. Nor does he consider the possibility that, short of Armageddon, the war was unwinnable. It's tough to lose a war, and very tempting to blame defeat on -- X.
More than one reader was disturbed by Gelernter's X factor when *Commentary* published his "How the Intellectuals Took Over" (March 1997). One wrote, "It is surprising to find an anti-Semitic article in *Commentary,* yet . . . I cannot view [Gelernter's article] in any other light." Gelernter became indignant at the very idea that he might be imparting anti-Semitism. The "assertion that my article is 'anti- Semitic,' he replied, "belongs in a special category. I will not lower myself to answer it."
But for Jews to propagate anti-Semitism is not nearly so odd as Gelernter supposes. According to Cornell scholar Sander Gilman (as argued in books like *Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti- Semitism and The Hidden Language of the Jews,* 1986), the key decision for Jewish intellectuals in Europe and America in modern times has been not only what kind of Jew to be, but what kind of Jew to avoid being identified as. It was in the Jewish identities you disowned and lent yourself to vilifying that you demonstrated the hold of anti-Semitism. One of Gilman's many examples concerns the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose response to being labeled "the intellectual" and "the psychoanalyst (a synonym to the Nazis for *Jew *)" in Vienna between the war, was to "project those qualities unacceptable in his own self-image onto the marginal Jews . . . the Eastern Jew and the *Luftmensch.*" As noted, Gelernter's public stance is as an observant Jew. His ceaseless attack on the corrosive effects on the body politic of the intellectuals -- those other Jews, the secularizing ones -- speaks for the continuing relevance of Gillman's analysis.
In *Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber* (1997), his account of his convalescence, Gelernter apologizes for the social theory he has just put forward, writing: "My analysis of modern U.S. culture in terms of a takeover by intellectuals is too overloaded with passion to resemble any normal, proper theory . . . The theorizing was done under stress and the niceties were not observed. Maybe the whole thing is not good." There's no question that Gelernter was in anguish when he put this theory forward, but, as a remorseless critic of the cult of victimhood, he would presumably not want to be humored or patronized on that account. His conservative comrades have done him no favor by almost entirely exempting his theory from the criticism it deserves. But, in fact, "the whole thing is not good." It's awful. If it were a computer program, Gelernter would know it was awful when it refused to compile, or, if it did compile and run, when it wrecked his system. In fact, for a glimpse of a true source of today's perplexities about basic questions Gelernter might look to his own profession. You can't build mirror worlds without sowing doubts about morality, property, and the nature of reality itself. Gelernter is an agent of the modernity he condemns. But the endlessly repeated theory of "the coup of the intellectuals" stands in the way of him ever getting a grasp on the forces shaping America today. And it taints his extraordinary gifts.