Liberals’ Huge Blind Spot Regarding Conservative Intellectuals

Let's get oriented, shall we? (Photo by Dru Bloomfield via Flickr/CC)

Russell Jacoby’s article on conservative anti-intellectualism in this week’s Chronicle Review opens with a fair appraisal.

“Are conservative intellectuals anti-intellectual?  The short answer must be no.  Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Harvey Mansfield, Wilfred M. McClay—conservative thinkers have championed scholarship, learning, and history.”

For conservatives who are tired of hearing liberals and leftists rehearse the “conservatives-are-stupid” charge, it’s a welcome concession.  But as Jacoby’s next sentences signal–”The long answer, however, is more ambiguous. Confronted by social upheavals, conservative intellectuals tend to blame other intellectuals—socialist, liberal, secular”—the essay shifts quickly and argues for the deterioration of conservatism in America into a benighted mindset.  David Galernter’s new book America-Lite is his prime example, though we also have Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, John Podhoretz, and William Kristol.

The latter two are Jacoby’s final illustrations of how far conservatism has declined into ideology.  He invokes them because they are sons of famous 20th-century conservatives (both parents, all of whom famously drifted from Left to Right in middle age) who have become flat ideologues, we are told.  By contrast, other offspring who stand on the left maintain their intellectual character–David Bell, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, who “are all productive historians who have written significant books on French and American politics.”

But there is a problem with this argument.  Kristol and Podhoretz are in the public sphere, editing prominent periodicals and involved in policy discussions.  Bell and Wilentz are academics, and while Walzer has a significant public career behind him, he also has enjoyed academic posts all his life.  Of course, their writings appear more scholarly and less partisan than Kristol’s and Podhoretz’, who have chosen a different path.

If Jacoby wished to argue for conservative decline, he should cite conservative professors of the same professional profile as liberal professors and who have made sallies into public intellectual labor.  Let’s see if those professors on the Right hold up intellectually against professors on the Left.  Obviously, conservative professors (and intellectuals) are far-outnumbered by liberal professors (and intellectuals), but that doesn’t diminish the glaring weakness of positions such as Jacoby’s: They ignore conservative scholars and thinkers.  When they pair conservative intellectuals to liberal intellectuals, they select famous names from media and public life, not academics.

It gets tiresome.  Rather than argue against Jacoby’s characterizations, let’s just compile a list from whom liberal critics might choose the next time they assert conservative inferiority (add those mentioned by Jacoby at first, including McClay, who is at University of Tennessee–Chattanooga).

Stephen Bainbridge, Law, UCLA

Peter Berkowitz, Political Science, Hoover Institution (Stanford)

James Ceaser, Political Science, University of Virginia

Jean Elshtain, Philosophy, University of Chicago Divinity School

Anthony Esolen, English, Providence College

The late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, History and Women’s Studies, Emory University

Robert George, Political Science and Law, Princeton University

Dana Gioia, English and Public Policy, USC

Timothy Groseclose, Political Science, UCLA

Harvey Klehr, Political Science, Emory University

Thomas Sowell, Economics, Hoover Institution (Stanford)

Shelby Steele, English and History, Hoover Institution (Stanford)

David Steiner, Education, Hunter College

James Stoner, History, LSU

Walter Williams, Economics, George Mason University

One could add dozens intellectuals who produce academic work even though they reside off-campus, including:

Arthur Brooks, Social Science, American Enterprise Institute

George Nash, Biography and History, the Russell Kirk Center

Rusty Reno, Editor, First Things

George Weigel, History and Religion, Ethics and Public Policy Center

The list could go on, but the point is clear.  It demonstrates most of all the parochialism of liberal academics–an understandable condition given the dearth of conservative thought in the training of graduate students.  In fact, I don’t believe that liberal critics consciously omit conservative thinkers and academics from their evaluations.  They don’t even know they exist.

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