Rage on the Right

Enter David Gelernter's back-corner office in Yale's computer-science building, and you don't notice him so much as his mess. Magazines and books and random piles of papers swim across the carpet and onto the shelves and the desk, flowing around random marooned cans of Polar Seltzer, drifting outward from a pathetically inadequate, overflowing garbage pail.Gelernter's busy. Probably too busy to clean up. Look at the books. Some deal with computers, the field that made the Yale prof mini-famous for his research and writing about artificial intelligence and software. Some deal with politics. On the wall behind his desk hang two portraits he sketched, one of Robert Moses, the legendary New York City public-works boss/visionary. A glass piece in another corner bears the Hebrew word chai, life.Four years ago, the Unabomber nearly took Gelernter's life, blowing three fingers off his right hand and making him more than mini-famous. Gelernter has refused to play the victim's role since then, going on with his work and giving no interviews. But rather than silencing Gelernter, the Unabomber -- the anti-technology nut, believed by federal authorities to be Theodore Kaczynski, who allegedly killed three people and injured 23 others over 17 years -- helped launch him to a national pulpit. That's why he's so busy now.At 42, Gelernter has emerged as a leading and lively voice of the right, playing the role of cultural/political warrior in a contest of his choosing rather than the role thrust upon him as victim. A creative thinker and gifted writer, Gelernter weaves together technology, politics, art and religion into one continuing broadside, published in leading national magazines, newspapers and journals, against what he considers the destructiveness and moral vacuity of the American liberal establishment. He calls for America to return to standards and responsibility, in church or synagogue (his prescription: go), in school (teach basic writing and math), art (learn how to paint before you "self-express"), in politics (make sense, particularly Republican sense, that distinguishes good from evil, rather than sliding into moral relativism and regulating and taxing so much).On June 23, 1993, Gelernter opened a package in his office. It exploded in his hands. He stumbled, bleeding profusely, down the block to Yale's infirmary. He barely survived.In addition to making him a national figure, the bombing -- or, rather, the public reaction to it -- completed Gelernter's political trajectory from liberal to centrist to right-winger. In fact, over the course of a heated 90-minute exclusive interview, Gelernter displays far more hostility toward leftists than toward the terrorist he once labeled an "evil coward.In part that's because he will publicly detail his reaction to the incident for the first time in September in a book called Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber (Free Press). But only in part. His final move to the right from the center, in the wake of the bombing, had to do "not so much with getting blown up," he says. "A random act of violence in itself has no significance or meaning. It's a fact of life in any civilized society. But the consequences and the attitudes that followed it opened my eyes." He was outraged, for instance, when "liberal" media organs like the Washington Post devoted columns to seriously dissecting the Unabomber's writings in comparison to Gelernter's.Since the bombing, the high-powered Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, named Gelernter a fellow. William F. Buckley's National Review named him a contributing editor. Gelernter wrote the book he had previously dreamed of writing but hadn't tackled -- 1939: The Lost World of the Fair (Avon Books, 1995), a critically acclaimed combination novel/history of how America has realized the technological dreams exhibited at the World's Fair but, in the process, has forgotten how to dream. He has another book coming out in January, Machine Beauty, about the aesthetics of computers and technology.Besides writing periodically in The New York Times (the object of his sharpest attacks on the liberal media), besides producing books, Gelernter is resident art critic for Rupert Murdoch's right-wing magazine the Weekly Standard. In his columns, he glides from knowledgeable dissection of, say, a PBS special on art critic Robert Hughes to conclusions about the "vast pompous zero" that U.S. art has become, then to digs at "the pious, pose-striking elite that manages culture in modern America, and managed it to the ground." This March he wrote a lead piece in Commentary calling for massive conservative resistance to the left-wing intellectuals he claims have taken over academia -- and thus America's entire elite -- in a bloodless coup, removing values and standards from practically every facet of civic life."Today's newspapers and popular magazines, museums and TV stations, movie studios and schools mainly line up with the intellectualized elite," he writes, "but no law says that it has to be this way forever."While the Unabomber may have opened some doors to Gelernter, he has earned his position as pundit. He writes with voice, with insight, with passion, with humor -- just as leading leftish writers did in his formative years, and just as leading right-wing writers do today. He's an intellectual gunslinger at war with the liberals and perceived leftists, remarkably quick at the draw with effortless, vivid metaphors.Some conservatives argue that the right has replaced the left as the ideology of the liveliest, most original writers because the other side has run out of ideas. Another theory (mine): Even though the right wing ran the White House for 12 years -- followed by a Democratic president who adopted its basic agenda -- even with a Newt Gingrich-led Congress, even with big business's power (and profits) reaching undreamed-of heights thanks to globalization, weakened unions and a bought-off government ... even then, the right still believes deeply that the left controls the establishment. Liberals play along. They feel they must protect withering gains of yore, like civil-rights laws and aid to the poor. In a defensive posture and convinced they can't trust the public, liberals haven't taken on the right's vision of family values or security. Meanwhile, writers like Gelernter believe they are the outsiders attacking the status quo. They get to throw the rocks, dismantle the barricades, breathe the intoxicating wind of revolution. You'd never guess that they've won. Don't believe me? Just listen to Gelernter.Vietnam Redux"It makes them despicable! It makes them deSPICable as people!"Ten minutes into our conversation, already we're re-running the 15-year-old debate between left and right over the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and U.S. support for the anti-government contras. Gelernter is arguing that the left made the same mistake with Nicaragua as it did with Vietnam: supporting a tyrannical Marxist government.Vietnam. That was his first ideological moment of truth. He can never forgive the left -- including himself, in junior high and high school -- for supporting the Vietcong, whatever the left's legitimate criticisms about how America prosecuted the Vietnam war. What he can't forgive most, he says over and over again, is that, once the Vietcong were revealed as killers, the left never apologized for its support.Does that make the ideas of the left invalid? I ask.That's when Gelernter goes off about desPICable people.Yet Gelernter has been most civil about granting this interview. For weeks I had bugged him by e-mail; I'd noticed his bylines, found his writing both intellectually challenging and stylistically superb, and wanted to discuss it with him. Until now he has chosen to control the point he makes by writing his articles himself. Why not, I asked, sit down with a confirmed left-winger to challenge each other?He e-mailed that he likes the idea of the right talking to the left. He'd talk to me, he wrote.Then, his publicist at The Free Press told me and him that he should under no circumstances do interviews -- they promised Time magazine an exclusive coinciding with the book's publication. But Gelernter e-mailed again that he felt he should live up to his word -- as long as he honored the promise to Time that he wouldn't discuss the book with anyone else.The first thing you notice about his office, before you enter upon the creative mess, is that it's locked. Gelernter keeps it locked, even when he's there, alone or with somebody.Gelernter offers a cordial hello, reaches out his left hand to shake. (A thick black glove encases his right, maimed by the Unabomber.) Dressed in a tweed coat, his shirt collar open, his dark hair tousled, amid the strewn piles of written material, he could play, in the film version of his book, the role of the university intellectual he so despises. He reacts blankly to efforts at small talk; on the phone, too, he responded with silence at any effort at joking, although he does have a keen wit.He traces his first doubts about liberalism to conversations with his grandfather, a rabbi from Flatbush named Theodore Lewis.Gelernter's parents were solid Democrats. His dad worked at IBM; his mom stayed home. They brought him up first in Briarcliff, a ruralish patch of Westchester County, N.Y. "It was a marvelous place to grow up. I miss it. Briarcliff was a beautiful town. It wasn't completely developed. There was a fair amount of open, forest land. You could buy baseball cards. There was a soda fountain." At 11, he moved to Huntington, L.I. He read Mad magazine, Car & Driver. By junior high school, Gelernter was protesting the Vietnam War. All typical for his demographic.He deeply respected grandpa, not your typical Reform rabbi who preached more about the evils of Richard Nixon each Sabbath than about the evils of polytheism. He had visited the Soviet Union in the '30s. "Thanks to him I never bought the Communist line. He not only had no illusions about Communism. He had no illusions about the American left, which he considered duplicitous, fundamentally dishonest and dishonorable. Insofar as we disagreed, he was right and I was wrong, down the line." What made him realize that?"The boat people did it. Even more so was the response of the left. When you see people willing to put to sea in a rowboat, who want that much to get away from the government that William Sloane Coffin was so enthusiastic about, it makes you think. Even more so you would think that the moral lions of the left" -- he practically spits out the sarcastic notion that the left could have "moral lions" -- "would have stood up and said, 'Damn, we were wrong! This was a tragic mistake we made!' But of course, they said no such thing." The reaction of what he considers the liberal elite to the Unabombing fit in with what he was observing on college campuses and in political and cultural life: a reigning orthodoxy corrupted, in his view, by delusional notions of equality, by government intrusion into public life and, above all, by feminism.VMI Or Die!In many of his articles Gelernter manages to find a way, at least in passing, to denigrate feminists. Not just their ideas. Them. Their refusal, for instance, to be called "girls." (See accompanying article, "Gelernter in Print.")Where were the Republicans, he asks in despair in his Commentary broadside, when the Justice Department brought suit to force the Virginia Military Institute to go co-ed, and the U.S. Supreme Court went along? How could Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices vote "in favor of smashing the old order and putting in a new one, on the scientific principle that men and women are in practice interchangeable?"Why should he care so much about women dressing to kill along with men?"I don't care," he responds, quiet at first. "Women may have been the best thing to hit VMI in a million years. I don't understand why they allowed themselves to be humiliated in this fashion."Gelernter's "they" doesn't refer to women being harassed. It refers to the men running VMI."I'm running a university," he posits. "It's a university that reveres tradition. I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing things in a traditional way. A bureaucrat tells me, 'Take this central tradition and chuck it in the garbage.' Why I don't tell this guy 'Screw you'? ... I don't understand how my dignity as the director of an institution is consistent with letting anybody tell me how to run my school."But Gelernter is objecting to more than the behavior, the masculinity or perceived lack of it, of a single director."VMI comes and tells me, it's important to our military tradition, the way we run things. We only have men. We want them all to be together. We want them to beat each other up. We want them to all do the same number of push-ups and all harass each other in the same way. Why the hell shouldn't they be allowed to do what they want to do?"Wait a minute, I interject. That's what we want our future soldiers to do? Go around beating each other up and harassing each other?"Are you really asking that question?" Gelernter looks stunned. "The job of a soldier is to kill people. The reason we have an army is to train people to kill people. Now you've noticed that males are more aggressive than females." Now he's really worked up -- expression intense, voice rising. "Does that mean that all males are more aggressive than every female? Of course not. Does aggression have something to do with being a good soldier? Obviously. Obviously your role in battle is to kill people efficiently."It seems to me that part of what any military force needs to learn is how to also control aggression -- not to commit excesses on the battlefield, not to consider violence the only option in making decisions."I mean, seriously, you cannot believe that the essence of a military enterprise is not masculine in character." Gelernter has a point. I always wondered why feminists saw being allowed to share in the killing as a priority. But what does that say about men?Gelernter can't stop now. "Are there women who are capable of doing this? Sure. But it doesn't change the fact that blood lust, belligerency, desire to dominate... If I'm a soldier, I'm going to have to want to dominate. I'm going to have to want to KILL. I'm going to have to want to destroy!"Now it feels like the scene from Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant when Arlo tries to get out of the draft. He tells the army shrink he wants to kill. He yells it, jumps up and down. The shrink yells with him, jumps with him. Then he sends him out, recommended for battle."That's what it takes to defend this country," Gelernter continues. "I revere these values because I want my family to be safe. I do revere them! I revere them in the military. I sure as hell had better. Because I want those people to defend me and my family and my community when we're attacked."We proceed into a typical left-right argument on whether our military defends us or goes around the world attacking other people. He accuses me of sounding like isolationist Republicans in 1938 and 1911. I urge him to use the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s as reference for what our military's mission has become.Finally, Gelernter stares straight at me. "We have a military to defend you. If you're telling me those soldiers don't exist to defend you, wait until the country is attacked. Then you'll see who defends you. The military exists to defend you personally."Only later does it occur to me how our difference transcends the ideological. He has been attacked. He has been in a war, a terrorist war. He's still at war.On David LetterpersonOne of his inspirations in battle: the late writer E.B. White. Among writers, White is as well known for his skinny 1958 Elements of Style, co-authored with a former professor of his named William Strunk Jr., as he is for Charlotte's Web. Elements of Style remains today a peerless argument for straightforward elegance, non-ideological clarity in language. Gelernter frequently returns to the points made in the book -- down to the advisability of economy and the inadvisability of adverbs -- in his articles and in discussion. In White's name, Gelernter wants to save English from feminist/leftist purveyors of gender-equal terms "he or she" and "humankind."He fears he's losing.In his Commentary broadside, his major "evidence" of "rule by intellectualized elite" is a linguistic slip talk-show host David Letterman once made on air. Seriously. Gelernter devotes an entire section of the issue to an interview Letterman did with actor Kevin Kline about a French character Kline played in a movie."[Y]ou play a Frenchman -- French person," Gelernter quotes Letterman correcting himself. Gelernter's reaction: "It is one of those moments where the ground fractures and you see straight to the core of modern America."It is more precise to identify Kline's character as male. Letterman obviously responded to pressure not to assume people are male. To Gelernter, episodes like these aren't silly. They reflect a deeper problem."I can't get my students to use the word 'man.' My students write in 'he or she' garbage speak," he says. "I'm struggling to get them to write clean prose. They're loading their prose down with garbage that serves to show they're on the right side of the issue of feminism. It's a tremendously important issue, because once you allow ideology into the language ... "Wait a minute, I interject. "Ideology is always in the language." Isn't Gelernter making his own point?"Utter garbage. Utter garbage," he responds, waving his hand to dismiss my question. He does that a lot. I get the clear sense he's disappointed that he wasted his time on a discussion with yet another dopey leftist. But, a man of his word, he goes on with it, anyway. "This uniform assertion, 'Ideology is always in the language'" -- he also does this incredulous, mocking repeat-my-assertion routine -- "it's moral reductivism."In other words, everybody does it, so it's OK, and everybody's equally guilty. The right hates when the left does that. The right's right about that. That doesn't change the fact that the right (Gelernter included, when, for instance, he argues for supposedly "non-ideological history" teaching that assumes left-wing history is wrong) is blind about its own subjectivity.Gelernter will have none of it."Ideology, politics, to an extent ...to an extent" -- he repeats it slowly to emphasize that he's not equating conservatives with liberals -- "is inseparable from language. The problem has grown radically worse in recent decades. The extent to which the language has been hijacked by an elite which has drummed its usages in our heads. I see 5-year-old kids talking this way. It is to me horrifying. And despicable."I don't mention that my elder daughter had "he or she" down by 5. I'm glad she finally learned that women can be doctors, too. And police officers. I do mention the uses of "freedom" and "competitiveness" which conservatives have injected into our national language. Those words now serve as covers for supporting thuggish regimes or guerrillas abroad, or unleashing corporate greed at home."That's different," he says."Because it's your side.""False," he counters. "That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about how you write a story about what I did for my summer vacation. Nothing the conservatives have done is going to affect how a child writes that story. But the left is going to make sure he doesn't write the word 'fireman.'"How, I wonder, does the word "firefighter" ruin the language?"Because it's a stupid word! I have two words. One is shorter and more concrete. One is longer and more abstract."I point out that more women now fight fires, wear police badges, than in the past. Maybe a word that was more precise in E.B. White's time now must yield to a different term that has more precision today.Gelernter disagrees, of course. But I agree with him. Ideologies, all ideologies, and the loss of concern for standards have destroyed our language. That matters. It warps our ability to think -- and then to act based on sound thinking. I'm glad Gelernter cares. It's part of the reason he writes so well.Nothing PersonalOne thought keeps nagging at me. This academic, privileged, intellectual elite that Gelernter keeps blasting in print, in discussion -- doesn't he resemble that class a bit too much?This "new elite" Gelernter describes with disgust in the Commentary article: They came to Harvard and Yale. They were, more than anyone else before them, Jews. They make enough money in cozy professorships to live in suburban homes, buy nice cars, vacation whenever and pretty much wherever they like. They care about things that most of America never even thinks about.Professor David Gelernter, Yale graduate, lives in Woodbridge. He frets about the future of the English language.Now, I have nothing but respect for the guy. Even if he hadn't been blown up by a terrorist and emerged with dignity and a new, broadened, constructive role in public life. He's brilliant. He cares more about playing with his kids than about being famous.But how does he explain being on the side that supposedly won?"Sure, it's better for me now. In personal terms, the country has never been better for me. In personal terms I have never had the opportunity to be as rich or as powerful or as influential as I do today," he says. "I won. Society lost." I beg to differ.As I leave, Gelernter puts out his right hand. He even smiles. He claims he enjoyed the interview. This anger toward despicable leftists, he assures me, is "nothing personal." We leftists do swear by a feminist credo: The personal is political. But I believe him. And return the sentiment.

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