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    Nowadays I have finally grasped a proposition that seems obvious: that a writer has a duty to say
    what is wrong about life in his country and a duty, also, to say what is right.  When the status quo is
    good you had better defend it, or you will wake up one morning and it will be gone.
        -David Gelernter, Drawing Life

There is something especially perverse about the fact that Yale professor David Gelernter, a man who is extremely ambivalent about modernity himself, should have been a target of the Unabomber.  (It seems likely that he was targeted simply because of his work in the computer sciences and some favorable mentions in the New York Times, from which the Unabomber is suspected of having gleaned prospective victims.)  In this angry, completely idiosyncratic, often funny, polemic Gelernter recounts his recovery from the bomb blast that nearly killed him and did leave him with severely damaged hands, vision and hearing problems and a multitude of other ailments, but, alongside this story of survival, he also deconstructs the modern culture of intellectual elites, moral relativism, permissiveness, and political correctness, and ties the two together by arguing that phenomena like the Unabomber are made possible, or at least increasingly pervasive, by the failure of our society any longer to render judgment on evil.

The story of Gelernter's rehabilitation largely focuses on his family and friends and on his abiding passion for painting, music and writing.  Gelernter is not merely a patron of these arts, he is a creator of all three.  In fact, though his hand injuries limited his ability to paint and play the piano for several years, during this time he did amazingly manage to complete three books.

But the real thrust of this book is his disgust with modern culture.  There is not much new in his argument--it borrows, wittingly or no, from E. B. White, George Orwell, Jacques Barzun,F. A. Hayek, Paul Johnson, and other conservative critics--as he traces the decline of societal morality back to the surrender by WASP elites and their succession by intellectuals.  He understands full well that in many ways it was a good thing to move to a system that is based more on merit than on heredity, that the tolerance which is the central value of intellectuals has been beneficial to society in many regards, and that equality of opportunity for women and minorities has been in most ways a good thing.  But he is also quite blunt about the downside inherent in all of these trends.

As he argues, the meritocratic elite has turned the education system from a finishing school for gentlemen into a training ground for intellectuals, that is people who believe in the pure power of ideas to remake humanity and in the special role of intellectuals in making decisions for humanity.  Tolerance, an initial good as it opened doors for people and allowed for the free exchange of even unpopular ideas, has degenerated into an ethic of "anything goes."  Toleration has removed any standards of behavior and has delegitimized the judgment of ideas and behaviors.  What started as a refreshing openness to differences has been pushed to an extreme where we no longer seem to recognize the difference between good ideas and bad ideas or between true good and genuine evil, or if we do recognize it, somehow no longer feel confident in our right to judge between the two.

In several extremely opinionated and politically incorrect passages he tackles questions of gender equity, race, gay rights, etc., in light of this understanding.  But the book is brought full circle when he examines the events of his own life: modern attitudes towards crime, the sensationalist press, and the celebrity culture.  In perhaps the strongest and most memorable few paragraphs of the book Gelernter considers whether his own religious beliefs should mitigate against his desire to see the Unabomber pay for his crimes with his life:

    I would sentence him to death.  And I would commute the sentence in one case only, if he repents,
    apologizes and begs forgiveness of the dead men's families, and the whole world--and tells us how
    he plans to spend the whole rest of his life pleading with us to hate the vileness and evil he
    embodied and to love life, to protect and defend it, and tell us how he sees with perfect agonizing
    clarity that he deserves to die--then and only then I'd commute his sentence...

At one point in the book, Gelernter reflects on a friend's assertion that he is an "extreme right-winger" because "you believe, he told me, that society is better off--other things being equal--if mothers stay home and rear their children than if they get jobs."  And that is indeed an extreme opinion in today's culture, though becoming less so.  But what really sets Gelernter apart and places him squarely in the extreme conservative camp are the dual ideas above: first, that he is capable of judging the Unabomber evil and is entitled to render a death sentence upon him; second, that a murderer's crimes place a burden, not upon society to justify the death sentence, but upon the criminal himself.

Think about the last few executions that death penalty activists have made a fuss about.  In none do they actually argue that the death penalty is wrong, instead they trump up excuses for the convict.  The idea that a criminal should have to recognize the nature of his crimes, take responsibility for them and beg society to forgive him, is completely foreign to these proceedings.  In a funny way, Gelernter's position takes these men seriously in a way that their advocates do not.  The activists are merely trying to spare their wretched lives, Gelernter's position takes into consideration their souls and demands that they try to redeem themselves.

As in this specific case, Gelernter's musings generally point out one of the great ironies of modern life: to believe in the inherent value of women in their role as mothers (their central role for thousands of years); to believe that members of every race, creed and gender can compete on equal grounds in the academy and the economy; to believe that every individual is responsible for his own actions; all of these beliefs today qualify one as an uncaring, insensitive, radical right-winger.  But believe instead that motherhood is a waste of time and a form of bondage; believe that certain groups of people can only compete if government gives them some advantage; believe that no one is truly responsible for anything they do, that societal and familial forces dictate their actions; and you will be hailed as a decent, caring, enlightened humanist.

But of course, it is the first world view--traditional liberalism, now called conservatism--that made possible the progress of women and minorities and even intellectuals in the first place.  However, as the old hereditary elite willingly yielded their exclusive position of power, they also unwittingly yielded to the victimology of the new intellectual class and so allowed the destruction of what was best about their own culture, even as they admitted new members to it's hallowed ground.  Conservatives then are reactionary, but not in the sense that they want to return to exclusivity, rather in that they want to restore the values that made their culture so desirable to outsiders to begin with--individual freedom, individual responsibility, equality of opportunity for all but without guarantee of result, and a set of universally recognized absolute standards of conduct that apply to everyone.

Gelernter often casts a covetous eye back towards the America of the 30's and 40's, to a time when these ideals did permeate the culture and helped to glue the admittedly imperfect society of the day together.  In a certain sense, this quirky memoir traces two explosions, the one that nearly killed him and the much larger one that has blown that America apart.  His personal story is one of relying upon family, friends, traditional values and the great works of Western Civilization to nurse himself back to full spiritual health.  The question is: will this same prescription ever be applied to our shattered culture and similarly restore it to full health?

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Autobiography
David Gelernter Links:
    -David Gelernter : Professor of Computer Science (Yale University)
    -Lifestreams Project
    -Mirror Worlds Technologies
    -BOOKNOTES: Title: Drawing Life Guest: David Gelertner (November 16, 1997, CSPAN)
    -EXCERPT: HOW I SURVIVED THE UNABOMBER  BY DAVID GELERNTER (TIME)
    -REVIEW : of America Before TV: A Day in Radio, September 21, 1939. Edited by Paul Brennecke (David Gelrnter, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: How the Intellectuals Took Over  (And What to Do About It) (David Gerlernter, Commentary)
    -EXCERPTS: from Machine Beauty by David Gelernter (The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Cyberwar's Literary Fallout Rivals the Cyberwar (DAVID GELERNTER, NY Times Book Review)
    -OP/ED: PUT DOWN THAT CALCULATOR, STUPID! (DAVID GELERNTER, NY Post)
    -OP/ED: What's at Stake in Kosovo (David Gelernter, NY Post)
    -OP/ED: Gay Rights and Wrongs (DAVID GELERNTER, Wall Street Journal)
    -INTERVIEW: SURVIVING THE UNABOMBER  David Gelernter survives a Unabomber attack and the press that covered it. (November 4, 1997, Online Newshour Forum, PBS)
    -GERGEN DIALOGUE: SURVIVING THE UNABOMBER (OCTOBER 16, 1997, Online Newshour, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: Digital Culture : The World According to David Gelernter An interview with a computer scientist who argues that beautiful technology -- and a return to traditional values -- must show us the way forward (Harvey Blume, January 29, 1998, The Atlantic)
    -EDGE Third Culture: David Gelertner
    -ESSAY: THE SECOND COMING - A MANIFESTO Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. There is a magnificent sweep of intellectual landscape right in front of us.  (David Gelernter, Edge)
    -INTERVIEW: Omni Chat : Eileen Gunn and David Gelertner (Omni Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: Hotwired Hotseat Surviving the Unabomber (John McChesney, Hotwired)
    -INTERVIEW: David Gelernter: The InterMinds Interview  (David Bennaham, interminds)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: David Gelernter (100 Years of Innovation, Business Week)
    -PROFILE:    Rage on the Right (Paul Bass for the Advocate)
    -PROFILE: An Angry, Happy Man (George F. Will, Thursday, September 18, 1997, The Washington Post)
    -LETTER: Text of Letter from Unabomber to Dr. David Gelernter
    -ESSAY: Lifestreams : According to David Gelernter, the desktop metaphor is obsolete. He wants to move beyond space - to time. (Steve G.Steinberg, Wired)
    -ESSAY: RETURN OF THE 50-FOOT POINTY-HEADS : There's only one way to stop the attack of them thar Alienated Intellectuals -- bring back the Vassar Girl!  (GARY KAMIYA, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Truth, Beauty, and the User Interface: Notes on the Aesthetics of Information (Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Department of English University of Virginia)
    -REVIEW: of DRAWING LIFE Surviving the Unabomber By David Gelernter  (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Drawing Life Surviving the Unabomber. By David Gelernter (Alan Ehrenhalt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Drawing Life : Surviving the Unabomber (Susan Jackson, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Drawing Life (SCOTT McCONNELL, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Drawing Life RECOVERING FROM A BLAST (Eli Lehrer, The American Enterprise)
    -REVIEW: of Drawing Life (ADAM MAZMANIAN, Mindspring)
    -REVIEW: of Drawing Life The Trial of the Unabomber: A Moral Guide (Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: of Drawing Life (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW : of Drawing Life by David Gelernter  Encounter with a Madman (Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: of 1939 The Lost World of the Fair By David Gelernter  (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of 1939 The Lost World of the Fair. By David Gelernter (David Nasaw, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Lost World of the Future : Looking back at the 1939 New York World's Fair, David Gelernter's "novel with an index" exposes the irrevocable link between technology and nostalgia. (Jon Katz. Wired)
    -REVIEW: of  MACHINE BEAUTY Elegance and the Heart of Technology By David Gelernter  (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology By David H. Gelernter (Eli Lehrer, The American Enterprise)
    -REVIEW: of Machine Beauty : Elegance and the Heart of Technology By David Gelernter (Susan Jackson, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Mirror Worlds Or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean By David Gelernter (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Mirror Dreams by David Gelernter (Sohodojo)
    -REVIEW: of The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought by David Gelernter (Caitlin Kelly, November 1996)

Book-related and General Links:

 

GENERAL:
    -The Unabomber Trial (The Sacramento Bee)
    -ESSAY: Republican Disarray (Gary Wills)
    -ESSAY: "Victimizers" (Cathy Young, The New Republic)

Comments: