Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Remarkable David Gelernter

"Why is it so easy for people to believe in the light but not in the dark? We live in a world of disease, squalor, global hatred--government leaders lie and cheat us and yet everyone believes there's a kindly father upstairs but not some guy running around with horns!"--Mel Profitt, "Wiseguy"

David Gelernter is best known as a pioneering computer scientist and as one of the survivors of an attack by the so-called Unabomber but Gelernter should be defined neither by his chosen profession nor by being a victim of violence; Gelernter is an intellectual in the best, classical sense of the word, in addition to being an eloquent writer, a moral philosopher and a painter.

Gelernter's 1997 book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber details his slow, painful recovery from his injuries but it also describes how the Unabomber case--and our society's response to it--reflects a dangerous moral ambiguity that threatens the very fabric of Western civilization. Here is how a fascinating review at describes Gelernter's take on our society's reluctance to acknowledge the existence of evil:

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...
The crux of the matter is that it is vitally important for both individuals and societies to not only distinguish between good and evil/right and wrong but to vigorously fight for good/right and to vigorously fight against evil/wrong. As Edmund Burke put it, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

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