It isn't hard news, but sometimes the best thing journalists can do with really interesting people is sit down and talk to them -- with a recorder turned on.
The Atlantic has two interesting Q&A features up right now offering chats with men representing two very different brands, or styles of conservatism.
The first interview is a familiar byline for those who follow Beltway journalism -- Tucker Carlson of The Daily Caller (where I knew him as an editor who welcomed news-writing interns from the Washington Journalism Center program that I led for a decade). Of course, now he is best known as the guy lighting up the Fox News ratings in the prime evening talk-show slot formerly occupied by Megyn Kelly.
The second interview is with the noted Internet-era theorist David Gelernter, a Yale University computer science professor who is also known for his writings (often in The Weekly Standard) on art, history, politics, culture, education, journalism, Judaism and lots of other things. Many readers will recall that he survived an attack by the Unabomber. I would think that, for GetReligion readers, his book "Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber" would be of special interest, because of its blend of commentary on journalism, faith and public life.
Why point GetReligion readers to these two think pieces? The Carlson piece is interesting because of what is NOT in it. The Gelernter interview (and an amazing 20-point attached memo written by Gelernter) is must reading because of what IS in it.
Here is the passage in the Carlson piece -- focusing on his personal worldview and its roots -- that is creating some buzz:
To the extent that Carlson’s on-air commentary these days is guided by any kind of animating idea, it is perhaps best summarized as a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe. The country has reached a point, he tells me, where the elite consensus on any given issue should be “reflexively distrusted.”
“Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”
“But the problem with the meritocracy,” he continues, is that it “leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid -- I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.”
Carlson recounts, with some amusement, how he saw these attitudes surface in his neighbors’ response to Trump’s victory. He recalls receiving a text message on election night from a stunned Democratic friend declaring his intention to flee the country with his family. Carlson replied by asking if he could use their pool while they were gone.
Wait for it.
“I mean people were, like, traumatized,” he says. And yet, in the months since then, “no one I know has learned anything. There’s been no moment of reflection … It’s just, ‘This is what happens when you let dumb people vote.’” Carlson finds this brand of snobbery particularly offensive: “Intelligence is not a moral category. That’s what I find a lot of people in my life assume. It’s not. God doesn’t care how smart you are, actually.”
This is a rather God-haunted article, in part because Carlson is talking about rejecting the dominant worldview of DC insiders and the press that covers them. That's the whole thrust of the article. Is Beltway-land known as a rather secular environment or what?
Meanwhile, might his own values and beliefs have something to do with religion? Carlson has been interested in faith issues in the past, but the Atlantic interviewer never spots the ghost.
But the Godtalk returns -- sort of -- in a discussion of Carlson's infamous interview with liberal writer Lauren Duca of Teen Vogue. In this case, Carlson is reacting to a holier than thou stance that he believes exists among the liberal DC elites. Once again, what is the basic worldview of DC and its elites?
When asked about what caused his blunt clash with Duca, he responds:
Finally, he answers, “It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption -- and it’s held by a lot of people I live around -- that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”
Read it all.
Meanwhile, the much longer Conor Friedersdorf interview with Gelernter goes all over the place and is very hard to describe with a few snips of text. But first things first: Why is the Yale professor in the news at the moment?
Last month, David Gelernter, the pioneering Yale University computer scientist, met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of joining the White House staff. An article about the meeting in The Washington Post was headlined, “David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser.”
It is hard to imagine a more misleading treatment.
By one common definition, anti-intellectualism is “hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible.”
It's pretty clear that, in this case, "anti-intellectual" actually means that Gelernter has been critical of the establishment that currently dominates higher education. Apples. Oranges.
But let's look at one long passage in which the faith-and-values question is openly addressed. If this interests you, then you'll need to read the whole feature.
Friedersdorf: If our domestic policy were informed by a similar lodestar -- to stand up for what is basically good, to oppose what is basically evil, and to have the wisdom to know the difference (and when neither good nor evil are implicated), how should we approach the most controversial intersections of science and policy?
I am thinking of questions like how much today's humans owe to future generations; if or when it is permissible to do research on stem cells from human embryos or to edit the human genome; what restrictions, if any, there ought to be on abortion or euthanasia; whether factory farms, or zoos, are wrong, etc. I don't mean to imply that these matters are all alike, or the most pertinent, but how you might guide policymakers who approach you in the course of trying to figure out what's best.
Gelernter: Frankly, I think that guiding citizens (insofar as I'm able to guide anyone) is far more important than advising policymakers. I've published a series of pieces over the years on this sort of question in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (they translate them), which have led in turn to contributions to German anthologies on these topics, occasional lectures in Germany, etc. I've never found a place to publish such things in English, not for a handful of academics but for the educated public.
That being said, I'm not quite sure I understand the question.
Does it ask how I'd make a decision, or what decisions I've actually made? I make my own decisions from inside the modern-orthodox Jewish world; I try to read relevant Talmudic and halakhic and responsa literature. The rabbis, my rabbis, are my moral guides. But it's often the case that they haven't dealt quite with the right question, or I disagree (Jewish theology is a literature of constant disagreement; nor of course do I present my views as any sort of rabbinic position—considered becoming a rabbi long & hard, but didn't). In any case, I then turn on my brain and do my best to figure out the question. I'm too old to foist off the final responsibility on anyone but myself. So that's how I make these decisions. (There are philosophers who influence me, but as authors more than arbiters. Nietzsche and Wittgenstein have always enchanted me, more for the way they embrace art than for their doctrines. Wittgenstein would sit in the nave of Ely, not far from Cambridge, and admire it. Something I love to do, though he had a lot more opportunity.)
As to my answers, I've written & argued in Germany that (for example) computers & social nets ought to be treated like bars or strip joints: not acceptable for children. (At least we ought to consider treating them that way.) I don't like the idea of legal restrictions. But I might urge that we get computers out of schools until our children are able to read & write half decently -- at least as decently as they used to during the middle two-thirds of the 20th Century.These are local decisions. But a science advisor's most important role is facing the public, not the president. A science advisor has to convince Americans that they're out of their minds to turn their backs on science. It is foolish, dangerous, and a waste of a beautiful opportunity.
AI presents tremendously serious moral problems which we leave to Kurzweil and friends. But in practical terms, there's no way on earth I could get a piece from a very different viewpoint before a mass audience.
The ideological narrowness of mainstream commercial magazines is one of the deep, deep frustrations of my life. We have a thriving conservative intelligentsia in this country; it includes many (in fact most) of the smartest people I've ever met. (Think about Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Bill Bennett, Donald Kagan -- radically different sorts of thinker, all four strikingly brilliant. There are a few dozen more even at this exalted level.) It's a pleasure and a high honor to be part of America's conservative culture. But the Left hears nothing we say: nothing. Nothing. Most have shrugged this off; only a few of us care. Because I teach at Yale and, more important, because I belong to the art world & have since birth, I can't help caring -- and sometimes being outraged, sometimes just grief-stricken. What a damned mess we've made of intellectual life in this absurdly wealthy, lucky, blessed nation.
As if the interview is not enough, this package also includes -- as I mentioned earlier -- a 20-point document from Gelernter that is must reading. It touches on all kinds of things, ranging from America's toxic public culture to the crucial role that beauty plays in a good life.