Thursday, March 03, 2005

Responses

Here's an e-mail I got re: my Gelernter column early this morning. The errors in spelling are the author's, not mine:
Daniel,

Did you read Gelernter's Weekly Standard piece? He never claimed that Disraeli was the first neoconservative. He said that Disraeli was the first modern conservative.

Gelernter himself is not a neoconservative. In fact, he doesn't think to highly of the Kirstol cabal. You know the difference between classical modern conservative and neoconservatism, don't you? It seems from you column that you have no idea of any doctrinal differences, only ethnic ones.

There goes the premise of your column. I hope you have the integrity to aplogize to Professor Gelernter, whom, I assure you, is as "subtle" a thinker as exists in America today.

[name withheld] (Calhoun '03)
My rejoinder:
Dear [name withheld],

I always appreciate getting responses to my writing, but to say I disagree with you would be a bit like saying that the pope is a Catholic---rather understated.

My column has two premises. The first is that Professor Gelernter is advancing a repugnantly racialized conception of Judaism. This is unarguable. It is the consequence of his valorization of Disraeli's remarks about race, which might, to be fair to Disraeli, have been construed in a variety of ways in the 19th century, but whose range of possible meanings, to Gelernter's discredit, has been reduced geometrically by the experience of the twentieth century.

The second premise is that Gelernter has slandered Isaiah Berlin and a number of other thinkers as well. He does so by calling Berlin an effective coward who timorously guarded his opinions in deference to the opinions of gentiles; he does so even more by accusing Berlin of being a worthy substitute for bonafide anti-Semites.

My conclusion, drawn from these premises, is that Gelernter has stumbled onto a tension in the folk concept of "Jewish self-hatred." One of the possible referents of that term is the noble tradition of which Isaiah Berlin was a member. The other is Gelernter's splenetic invalidations of the Jewishness of his fellow Jews for failing to live up to some imagined standard of Jewish identity, in this case Gelernter's own abhorrent racialism.

Re: the point about neoconservatism, maybe I wasn't subtle enough to get past Gelernter twice referring to Disraeli as a "neocon" in his first paragraph. Perhaps I read too much into Gelernter's status as a contributing editor to the nation's premier magazine of neoconservative opinion, run of course by the scion of the "Kristol cabal" (a term I'd never use, by the way). It is also possible that I misjudged Gelernter's reliance on Gertrude Himmelfarb's assessment of Disraeli's literary merits. And so on. All the foregoing is possible, but I doubt it.

What I know for sure, however, is that Gelernter is anything but subtle. I know this because I attended a lecture he gave in which he stated, straight-facedly, that there are no dualists left in the philosophy of mind. This claim is belied somewhat by the fact that the chairman of Gelernter's university's own philosophy department is an adherent of the dualistic tradition of the early Enlightenment rationalists.

In the course of the same lecture, he derisively referred to Bertrand Russell as a "flaming atheist"--his term. Forget for a moment about the absurd gratuity of the modifier "flaming," though I confess I don't know what it could actually refer to except an atheist who is on fire. Bertrand Russell was not an atheist. He believed that the meaning of a sentence is given by its verification conditions. Theses like atheism and theism have no verification conditions; thus, as the theory has it, they are "vocus flatus," noises that resemble articulate speech but which in fact are strictly speaking contentless. Russell could not have been an atheist, because he thought that atheism was a meaningless string of sound. Russell, was, on the other hand, irreligious. Subtlety, I would submit to you, is not tokened by failure to grasp this distinction. Sophomore philosophy majors routinely find their papers torn to bits over such errors.

Gelernter, if he were a medical doctor, would perform surgery with a machete rather than a scalpel. I owe him nothing.

Best,
DK

1 Comments:

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Liam said...

On the one hand I agree that Gerlernter would use a machete, on the other (wooden) hand I believe he has no business operating in the first place.

Gerlernter is a lot bright, more than a little crazy and entirely wack. Your response to the article is right on. Most 'specially here--

'It is the thread connecting Maimonides to Spinoza to Martin Buber to Walter Benjamin to Primo Levi to Irving Howe to Woody Allen. It is the ability to doubt and to doubt genuinely and deeply, to doubt for the sake of doubt itself and not for the teleological confirmation of piety, and it is the true glory of Jewish culture.'

big up.

 

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