When the balance of trade between George Scialabba’s pension plan requirements and his age came to an agreement, and his long dreamed-of chance to break free of his day job at last presented itself, he retired from Harvard University, where he had served with distinction for thirty-five years. No, George did not retire from Harvard’s distinguished faculty. He retired from his cubicle positioned in the basement of the Center for Government and International Studies, in whose solemn service he scheduled rooms for said faculty.
That was August 31. Occupationally speaking, George’s next move should have involved slinking away from his chair with a backpack of office supplies and a few mugs and knickknacks stowed away in a cardboard box. But George was always equal to and more than his day job in clerking at Harvard. In his spare time, somewhere along the way, he turned himself into one of the country’s best critics and intellectual essayists by practicing the supposedly lost art of book reviewing.
Seizing a chance to celebrate the uncelebrated, to invert the values of office hierarchy, to exalt the uncredentialed emanations of a monkish writer on the university’s clerical staff over the blare of the tenured pipsqueaks that make up Cambridge’s vaunted academic establishment, The Baffler decided to do the unnatural thing and throw George a star-spangled retirement party as if he were a big shot. We produced a tribute film, recruited a brass band and a slate of speakers—their remarks are reproduced below—and formed, through the miracle of stationery, a facetious lobbying group, the Committee to Preserve George Scialabba and Others Like Him (If Any), that successfully importuned the Cambridge City Council to proclaim September 10, 2015, the day of the event, “George Scialabba Day.”
Does George Scialabba represent the very last of “the last intellectuals”? Or is he so far behind history that he’s destined to become a prophet of the new future? We did not resolve that question, but the proceedings did provide an opportunity to depart from our usual acerbic criticism, aversion to back-scratching, and manic suspicion of total impending doom. We did entertain, if only for a few fleeting hours, the feeling of gratitude, and even—if you’ll excuse the expression—the desire for inspiration. After all, George Scialabba should not have made it this far; his peculiar skills were to have been sent to the trash heap by the New Economy sometime around 1993, say. Ditto, come to think of it, for the Brattle Theatre, our filmhouse that evening. And yet, long after the art galleries, poetry corners, used bookshops, jazz clubs, and book review sections went the way of glassblowers and typewriter repairmen, we rocked the house.
In case you’re wondering, the idea for George Scialabba Day arose spontaneously during a meeting of the members of the Cambridge City Council, all of whom keep embossed copies of his anticapitalist essays under their feather pillows. (If you believe that, you probably vote too.) Actually, we discovered that they trade such official resolutions like chits and pass them in bulk, usually not reading them. (One of the more “progressive” councilors is reputed to mine local obituary notices for surviving family, to whom he offers unsolicited resolutions in honor of the deceased.) We’re sorry to break it to you, but they are just that corruptible—even in a good cause. Next year, therefore, we’re going for a whole street: Baffler Boulevard.
Let us take as our text today George’s most famous line—at any rate according to an article in the Boston Globe—a sentence with which George concluded an article in Harvard Magazine way back in 1983: “Perhaps,” George wrote, “imagination is only intelligence having fun.”
It’s a nicely turned phrase, and kind of light-hearted too. And so Reader’s Digest picked it up and put it in one of their “Quotable Quotes” columns the following year. George became famous.
Or at least the quote did. Occasionally people who quoted George’s line took pains to attribute the quote to George—there still are such people—but others apparently didn’t think it was right to attribute something so pithy to a guy who toiled in the basement of an administrative building in Massachusetts and whose name they probably had trouble pronouncing. And so sometimes you’ll find George’s famous line attributed to “unknown” or “an anonymous sage,” which is the way the Philadelphia Inquirer did it in 2003.
Then there were variations, one of which appeared in the 1992 book Quality, Service, Teamwork & the Quest for Excellence: “Innovation is simply group intelligence having fun.” Innovation, George! Maybe we can get you a slot as a mentor at the Harvard Innovation Lab!
But the version of George’s line that really went on to conquer the world was this one: “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Creativity, that’s the important thing. Not mere imagination: creativity. The other really important aspect of the new and improved George-ism was its source. Today, you can find this quote all over the Internet, almost always attributed to . . . Albert Einstein.
In exchange for letting us do the work we love, the world swipes what we have to say and molds it into some pat phrase having to
do with the innovative stuff they do on Madison Avenue.
Now, I’ve always been interested in fake quotes from famous people. Back in 2011, I wrote a story about several fake quotes from the Founding Fathers that were then in vogue with the Tea Party movement, one from Franklin and one from Jefferson, that you would hear shouted at their rallies and see repeated in their books and printed on their T-shirts. It fascinated me because this was a movement that well-nigh worshiped the Founders, that regarded their words as sacred, and yet that constantly attributed to them things they obviously didn’t say.
Similarly, I find it fascinating that the word “creativity” replaced George’s original word “imagination,” and finally that the whole thing was attributed to Einstein, one of the most celebrated human beings who has ever lived. Today it ranks up there with Einstein’s other really well-known remarks, such as “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM” and “No rain, no rainbows.”
But really, it kind of makes sense. Einstein is the very symbol of “intelligence,” the playful, fun-loving genius who, we think, liked to go around sticking his tongue out at photographers, because everything was such a lark when that guy was in the house. He wasn’t at all like our modern dour, serious geniuses, such as Larry Summers. We think of Einstein as the personification of intelligence having fun, and George’s line just seems like something Einstein would say, only of course Einstein would take care to use the word “creativity” instead of “imagination,” because everyone knows creativity is something useful, something that builds civic value, that gets the Fortune 500 to move to your town.[*]
And so George’s quote has been printed on posters, coffee mugs, and drink coasters, always attributed to Einstein. I found it in books like Re-energizing the Corporation and The Business of Being the Best. I found it quoted on the websites of ad agencies, marketing firms, and advertising industry publications. It was printed onto T-shirts by the city of Denton, Texas, a suburb of Dallas that is trying to impress the world with its attractiveness to the creative class. They handed the T-shirts out at South by Southwest earlier this year. Creativity is intelligence having fun.
The saddest thing I found were those people who took George’s line as a key to Einstein’s personality, and spun out of what George wrote a whole theory of how Einstein’s genius brain worked.
There are several ironic layers to this story, if you care to look. One of them has to do with the literature of creativity and how very uncreative it is, how the heroes it worships always turn out to be really well established, how the people who love creativity never dare to talk about somebody unknown, and how any creative idea always has to have some business or marketing application.
Another ironic side of this story has to do with George Scialabba himself. George is one of the ablest chroniclers of the intellectual life of our country. That’s what he does. He’s a critic of ideas, and he’s the best there is, writing with equal facility about politics, education, foreign affairs; Walter Karp, Jacques Derrida, Dwight Macdonald.
I was reading George’s essay about The Last Intellectuals yesterday, which is a meditation on where all of us writers and freelance thinkers are headed. George traces the decline from the public-minded intellectuals of the distant past to the careerist academics of the slightly less distant past. But of course he doesn’t come down to today, because he wrote the essay in 1999.
But maybe now that he has time, he will write the rest of the story. And he will tell us how one of the conditions that comes with being a critic of ideas is that you have to lead your life outside the sanctioned world of consensus expertise. In George’s case, you get a basement office at Harvard from where you schedule events for the kind of intellectual practitioners whom the gods of our world smile upon. Another thing George will understand: This creativity-infatuated world will never give you a Nobel Prize, or a Genius Grant, or a TED prize, or a SXSW Interactive Innovation Award, or even a Hoopes Prize, like Baffler antihero Adam Wheeler. Instead, your hard-won insights and well-crafted phrases will become motivational slogans on office walls or help lure members of the creative class to some desperate Midwestern town.
In a way, what happened to George’s famous line is what happens to all of us. It’s the deal we’ve made with the world: in exchange for letting us do the work we love—for letting us be critics of ideas—the world swipes what we have to say, molds it into some pat phrase having to do with the incredible and really innovative stuff they do on Madison Avenue, and then, as a little bonus, attributes it to Albert Einstein.
George, I am afraid that this is what intellectuals are good for. Maybe someday the world will thank you, instead of reflexively heaping its praise for you onto the over-burdened shoulders of someone else. But while you wait for that day to come, you need to know that you have the thanks and the admiration of all of us.
I want to thank The Baffler for bringing us together tonight, and for just existing. I don’t know about you, but The Baffler’s pretty important in my life. It’s one of the few places I can write about really crazy things—like cell biology and killer macrophages—and they’re nice about it, they take it seriously, sometimes even print it.
I think it was through The Baffler that I met you, George. (Was it? I don’t know—how did we meet?) Well, you’ve all heard the basic story of what tonight’s about. This is celebrating the retirement of George Scialabba from thirty-five years of work. We know you had health benefits, because we’ve all read your psychiatric records in The Baffler. Just think about that: for thirty-five years he’s paid a salary, he gets benefits, and during this time he writes two or three books and scores of reviews and essays. So, you know why I’m really here tonight, George? Because I want that job. I think a lot of us would like that job. I mean, they did everything for you, right? Left you alone, right? Okay.
In preparation for tonight, I reviewed my correspondence over the years with George. I had to search my inbox by his name, naturally, because there was no one particular subject that we were corresponding about. I know that there’s a little exchange about populism, quite a bit of an exchange about modernity—and I have to admit, I had to ask George to define it for me. I had mixed it up with—what? Modernism? IKEA? I don’t know, I really had no idea, but he wanted me to write about it, so he told me what it was, and I did. We went back and forth about the evolutionary roots of human community and human solidarity, and we had an exchange, which I thought was pretty fascinating, about God in science fiction—that is, the representations of a deity in science fiction. I did not know, at the time, George, that you were once a Catholic, and I also did not know that you were a serious depressive. And so there I was, trying to convince you that the god of science fiction is amoral or bad. I probably shouldn’t have done that.
Modernity: I have to admit, I had to ask George to define it for me.
I had mixed it up with—what? Modernism? IKEA?
Anyway, in the Boston Globe recently, you were interviewed, and the reporter asked if you ever felt any kind of regret or sorrow in having been excluded from the academic mainstream. And I want to take that up just for a minute. I am also outside of that mainstream. I have no job, I have no institution, I have not had many jobs in my life, fortunately. Tom is another floater, a bum, like me, with no occupation that I know of. Noam, you’re probably the most respectable person here. Which says a lot—when Noam Chomsky is the most respectable person in your category, you’re in real trouble. Well, you could have been more respectable, you know if it weren’t for the Vietnam War and a few things like that, you’d be up there now, you’d be . . . well, truly respectable.
I think of The Baffler as in some ways a community of outsiders. But I just want to put it to you, George, that you didn’t miss much. I can’t speak from much inside experience of the academy, but what do you think you missed? Great conversations? Free-ranging discussions? Gloves-off, intellectual debates? No, I think what you missed out on was a lot of academic infighting, committee meetings, and memos—that’s about all I know of what goes on there. And you’re going to continue at The Baffler, right? That’s a job, that’s something. But let me just point out that where you were, and where you’re going now, to The Baffler, you are at the very center of things. You have been, intellectually, for a long, long time. It’s the insiders you should feel sorry for. We, here, are the community of outsiders, and today you are our hero. Thank you, George!
The title of one of George Scialabba’s many celebrated essays runs “What Are Intellectuals Good For?” To the extent that this question gets posed, the idea that intellectuals, like rock and roll, can save your life (or soul), isn’t one of the answers that usually gets offered in response. I have never met George until today, but my life is one that he saved, and probably not the only one.
The year was 2005. The room was not, properly speaking, a room; it was a cubicle at a major publishing house in Manhattan. I had been there a few months, and I was already profoundly depressed. I had emerged from a literature major and a series of great books courses in college—all supposedly preparing me to become a proper “citizen” of the country, and maybe even the world—to a world in which “citizenship” as such had been impoverished of whatever meaning it ought to have. The Tuesday of my second week of classes was September 11, 2001. Soon the United States had invaded Afghanistan, and discussions of the obviously impending invasion of Iraq were febrile.
Though I had attended my fair share of antiwar protests in those years, by some miracle of fate—or perhaps “the jobless recovery” that many will remember as the hallmark of the economy during the Bush administration—I found myself, that day in my cubicle, three months into an editorial job helping to publish business books and right-wing political screeds with titles such as The Truth about Hillary and The War on Christmas. We regularly consulted with Roger Ailes before making various publishing decisions. I like to refer to myself as a “veteran of the war on Christmas.” I was depressed but in some way trapped; the only other thing people from my university appeared to be doing was working in private equity. Every night I went home, smoked a bowl, and wrote out long, stoned, depressed sub-Herzogian letters, which I never sent, to the novelist J. M. Coetzee, someone I then considered the conscience of the age.
A generation of cubicle dwellers is furtively scrolling, searching for writing like George’s.
So it was no doubt with a slight hangover that, bleary-eyed, I clicked on a link that led me to an article on the homepage of a journal called n+1, with the title “Farewell, Hitch.” I remember a feeling I’ve rarely recaptured since—of scrolling through a piece online and feeling arrested, carefully weighing each sentence because the prose was so vigorous and well calibrated.
To read those sentences in the dark months of 2005, quietly and raptly scrolling through them on a computer in a cubicle that I hated—this was a revelation. At last, the most gratifying, funny, thorough and yet somehow deeply sympathetic denunciation of Christopher Hitchens that I had yet encountered—capturing for so many of us the sense of what it was like to read a writer we once admired, who now seemed to have lost everything we once admired about him.
Yet George’s sympathy was key. As a writer, George can be incomparably scathing, achieving heights of high dudgeon and outrage that are as sublime as they are gratifying. But rarely—never, really—do we come across a piece of his writing where he has failed to make the requisite attempt to grapple with a book’s or writer’s arguments before sharpening his knife. For such a delightfully cranky writer, his quality of engagement leads him to endorse cultural conservatives, or to attempt to reconcile, however arduously, the pragmatism of Richard Rorty, the anti-imperialism of Noam Chomsky, and the romantic prophecies of Christopher Lasch—three people to whom he dedicated his collection of essays What Are Intellectuals Good For? I owe George many things, and one of them is my acquaintance with figures like Lasch, whom my college education had led me to believe was a hopeless reactionary, rather than the fiercely dialectical critic I came to know through George’s writing.
And there is another reason I owe George. I’m not sure where muddling through my right-wing publishing job might have taken me. But the young magazine where he published his piece on Hitchens, n+1, was somewhere I subsequently volunteered on nights and weekends. Ten years later, the magazine still exists—from a certain perspective, even thrives—and I am one of two editors in chief. It is part of a spate of relatively new, lefty journals, and some revived ones: Jacobin, The New Inquiry, the revived Dissent (in whose archives I read many more pieces by George), the revived Baffler. I expect there are more to come.
Where do these magazines, their writers, and their readers come from? Taking a cue from Christopher Lasch, who shows us how no sign of progress was without its costs, psychic or otherwise, we can say that no motion of decline is without its benefits. As George himself has observed, we are undoubtedly in a bad time for the institutions of higher learning and journalism. In a review of a reissue of Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism, George wrote:
Will there be another Wilson? Not for a while, certainly. There’s too much to master and too many electronic distractions. Reading Greek and Latin for pleasure is practically unheard of. The very ideal of cultural authority is, rightly or wrongly, suspect. Most important, the freelance life is less and less possible in an economically rationalized, hyper-managerial society. Investors want twenty percent returns; we know what that means for literary journalism. Tenure committees are not impressed by “comprehensive and solitary,” idiosyncratic scholarship of Wilson’s sort. And where can a freelancer live? Even Hackensack will soon be gentrified. On the Web? Yes, but one wants, if not to be at the center of things, at least to know where it is. Or that it is.
Will there be another George, or at least more Georges? The decline of institutions like the university and the major newspaper are definitely causes for lamentation, but I can say, as an editor of a small but surviving leftwing literary journal, that they are producing many more writers and readers interested in radical thought. If tenure committees aren’t impressed by “comprehensive and solitary” thought like Wilson’s, you can be sure that John Summers is, and that I am, and that all of George’s editors have been. So a thriving climate for independent, unaffiliated, radical criticism is some, even if small, consolation. What this criticism is calling for isn’t more radical thought—it’s calling also for a radical reorganization of the functioning of society. A universal basic income, the democratization of oligarchic institutions, the redistribution of wealth, an end to imperial aggression abroad and exploitation at home: these are the arguments underlying this alternately exciting and desperate time. But desperation leads to searching, and searching may yet lead to sympathy for previously rejected ideas. A generation of cubicle dwellers is furtively scrolling, searching for writing like George’s, to whom he will give, as he indelibly gave me, resources of hope.
All this reminds me of one of those Comedy Central roasts, like—I got it: “George Scialabba is so modest . . .”
Audience: “How modest is he?”
“He’s so modest that his most famous bon mot begins with the word ‘perhaps.’”
I want to thank The Baffler. I’ve been with The Baffler almost since the beginning. I remember my first contribution was in Issue Three, probably in about 1991 or 1992, and I remember Tom pulling up in his station wagon in front of the Reynolds Club at the University of Chicago where the radio station was. I was going off to do my jazz radio show. Tom pulls up in that state of excitation that he occasionally inhabits and says “Rick!”—the station wagon’s full of boxes—“Rick! We’re publishing three thousand issues!” And now John has taken over with aplomb and grace, and he’s been a marvelous steward of the patrimony, so I want to thank both of them.
I feel very privileged to have George in my life. Thanks to George, I got an intimation of what heaven will look like. In Chicago, where I live, George once gave a presentation of one of his books, before an audience of eight or nine. We repaired to a friend’s house afterward, and we had a meal, as we often do, and I took a nap, as I often do, on a couch right next to the dinner table. I faded in and out of sleep, enjoying that drugged feeling of a good meal. I’d wake up to the sound of the most scintillating conversation between my dear friends and George. One of them, who worked at the Art Institute, began telling a story of what it was like to walk the Art Institute after work when all the lights are off, past Picassos, past the Monets and the Manets, the Modiglianis and the Seurats, and I fell asleep again. When I woke up, they were talking about an animistic spirit that had inhabited the Art Institute after dark, which sent George on some lovely disquisition. I fell asleep again, and I woke up again, and the conversation was still going on. Amid all his wrestling with the great moral issues of our time, and with his own wrestling with darkness, we shouldn’t forget that George is buoyed by that insouciant joy.
When George was a young man, he was inculcated with a heretical doctrine. As a high school recruit to the ultra-right-wing Catholic lay order Opus Dei, he received harrowing instruction in the thousand ways unrepentant souls attached to healthy young bodies could end up spending eternity in Satan’s lake of fire, along with the various unceasing rites of purification and mortification it took to prevent that awful fate. Packed off to college at Harvard, George was required to submit each semester’s syllabi in his major—modern intellectual history!—to his confessor, who would check each assignment against the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Vatican’s index of forbidden books. First published in 1559, the astronomical theories of Giordano Bruno, which caused him to be burned at the stake in 1600, were finally accepted in 1758, so our young hero was safe receiving instruction in heliocentrism. But among the four thousand volumes still included in the twentieth and final edition, issued in 1948, were the works of David Hume, John Milton, and Thomas Hobbes. (They didn’t even bother listing the obvious ones, atheists like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; why waste the ink?) Eventually his confessor, a man who “very much resembled my mental image of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor,” finally decided it was all too much trouble, and ordered George to “leave intellectual history alone, on peril of sin and perhaps damnation.”
This was the real heresy. Not choosing Enlightenment over Opus Dei; one could do that and end up a corporate lawyer. The real heresy, which reactionary Catholicism taught him, was a sin against the American grain: that ideas matter. That they are a matter of life and death. Why else would the Church burn people at the stake for them?
George writes from a position
of agape, like the most religious atheist alive.
Crazy: he still believes this—bone deep. He believes that achieving freedom, whatever the generals on CNN and the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal may preach, is not a function of American arms or of the sacred workings of the laws of supply and demand. It is a result of human beings exercising their reason, autonomously, from the ground up. In “Progress and Prejudice,” one of his best essays—one of twenty-first-century American letters’ best essays, I would say—he writes, “Emulating the philosophes’ great refusal, I lodged my little one, enrolling timorously but proudly in what I had learned from Peter Gay to call the Party of Humanity.” Not so little. Not so timorous. Gargantuan. Thunderous. But then, George Scialabba is a modest man. Only his gifts to us are immodest. He teaches us what it means for a mind to wake up; and who of us doesn’t need to relearn the lesson?
George harbors another heretical belief. He refers in “Progress and Prejudice” to T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Edward Banfield, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Arthur C. Clarke, Teilhard de Chardin, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, D. H. Lawrence, William Morris, Nicholas Carr, Sven Birkerts, Bill McKibben, Francis Fukuyama, Margaret Thatcher (!), Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Coleridge, George Orwell, Marquis de Condorcet, Paul Krugman, Glenn Greenwald, Christopher Lasch, and Noam Chomsky, in addition to the above-mentioned Dostoevsky and Peter Gay. But it begins with the story of his grandfather, who “was illiterate and worked as a laborer in a factory of the Hood Rubber Company. A few months before he was eligible to retire with a pension, he was fired for no reason; speaking no English, he had no recourse.”
This particular heresy is social democracy, the notion that freedom is meaningless without some universal level of material security, without democratizing economic as well as political life. That conviction sears its way through all his prose, always rendered in utterly human terms, never as an abstraction. It is why George’s deep learning is never pretentious. He writes, instead, from a position of agape, with a love for humankind so oceanic that he reads like the most religious atheist alive. My prayer is that this priest of ours, this sweet sacred monster, will raise us a little closer to what he stubbornly believes we can be.
When I received the program from John a couple days ago, I found that I was going to be the final speaker, and it was obvious that you would already have heard a long series of accolades. Instead of adding to them, I thought I would try to find some of George’s most notorious failures and flaws, and talk about these. So I picked this up from the shelf, his most recent collection of essays, For the Republic, and it took a little work. The first problem was just the sheer pleasure of rereading wonderful essays, finding insights I had missed the first time, being overwhelmed by the learning—the unpretentious learning, as a number of people have said—the beautiful writing, kind of a captivating quality, which has always impressed me by being able to give a sympathetic interpretation to ideas that seem at first to make no sense or worse, but in George’s sensitive hands become intelligible, almost convincing . . . almost, not quite.
But I did find cases where there was a real trespass beyond what is legitimate. One striking example is George’s failure to understand the true significance of high-quality education. According to George Orwell, in an unpublished essay, high quality education instills in you the understanding that there are certain things it simply wouldn’t do to say, or that matter, to think. Orwell considered this one of the primary reasons why in free England unpopular ideas could be suppressed without the use of force.
And there are plenty of examples in George’s work—for example, his discussion of what he calls “the lesson of the American century,” that “the United States is a rogue state, recklessly militaristic, grossly hypocritical, self-serving in its professions of devotion to democracy and human rights, and the chief promoter and beneficiary of investor-friendly and worker-unfriendly forms of economic development,” facts that are unmentionable, indeed unthinkable, at least in the academic mainstream and the major media. When we go from George’s reception desk to the inner sanctum of the Center for Government and International Studies, we find more acceptable ideas. So, for example, an eminent professor of the science of government at Harvard, writing in the prestigious journal International Security, informs us that the “national identity” of the United States, unlike that of other powers, “is defined by a set of universal political and economic values,” namely “liberty, democracy, equality, private property, and markets. Hence the United States has a solemn duty to maintain its international primacy for the benefit of the world.” Notice that this is a matter of definition, so we can dispense with the tedious work of empirical verification, which would surely be as pointless as searching for evidence that two plus two equals four.
While I was reading George’s essays, I was also reading the latest issue of one of the major journals of international affairs. Naturally, it’s sober and realistic, no nonsense, no sentimentality. The main topic of the issue, emblazoned on the front cover, is “What is America’s purpose?” Which is kind of an unusual question—we don’t usually ask about the purposes of other countries. But the United States, of course, is exceptional. One distinguished academic figure describes the goals that we pursue in the world: “an open society, respect for universal human rights, a world-governed international order in which states cannot invade other states at will. Standing for such a world and working to promote it, is not only an exercise of American power, it is the source of that power.” I’ll spare you the other contributions, but it’s worth looking at.
When we go from George’s reception desk to
the inner sanctum of the Center for Government
and International Studies, we find more “acceptable” ideas.
Quite generally, the contributions adhere to the principles expressed by the founder and icon of what’s called realism in international affairs and international scholarship, Hans Morgenthau, who wrote a book called The Purpose of American Politics, in which he pointed out that the United States has the transcendent purpose, unlike other countries, of establishing equality and freedom in America and indeed throughout the world, since the arena within which the U.S. must defend and promote its purpose is worldwide. Morgenthau was a very good scholar, honest and competent. He pointed out that the historical record of American actions is radically inconsistent with America’s transcendent purpose. But he went on to explain something that you can’t understand if you spend all your time at the reception desk. He said we “should not confound the abuse of reality with reality itself.” Reality itself is the unachieved national purpose, which is revealed by the evidence of “history as our minds reflect it.” The actual historical record is merely the abuse of reality, which is of interest only to small minds. Those who confuse reality with the abuse of reality are committing “the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds.”
Hans Morgenthau’s insights direct us to another of the cases where George’s analysis goes astray. That’s his critique of the leading neocon intellectual Irving Kristol. George seeks to refute his proclamations about America’s innate magnificence by reviewing a series of our shocking crimes. But Kristol would have a ready response, simply citing the dean of realist scholars, that the historical record that George was wasting his time on was just the abuse of reality, not reality itself, not the transcendent national purpose revealed by the evidence of history as our minds reflect it. That’s the kind of understanding that a quality education seeks to impart, as George Orwell explained. And throughout recorded history, failure to imbibe these lessons has quite generally led to marginalization or worse. Of course, this same failure has been the source of the very considerable history of modern intellectual enlightenment, causing changes in domestic and international society back to the earliest days. George is an inspiring example of these failures, and we’re all in his debt for that.
After the premiere of one of his plays, George Bernard Shaw got up on stage to acknowledge the applause of the audience. After the applause died down but before Shaw had begun to speak, someone in the theater gave him a very loud raspberry. Shaw kept his wits about him. “I agree with you,” he said in the general direction of the heckler, “but what are we two against so many?” I thought I might have to steal Shaw’s line this evening, because I expected that all the extravagantly complimentary things said about me earlier would provoke at least one or two of you to give me a very loud raspberry when I got up here. But you’re all far too gracious.
I’m sure you’ve all asked yourselves from time to time, as I have: What are book reviewers good for? Are they good for the republic? Well, that is indeed the modern predicament.
Whatever else we’re good for, we can at least remind readers about important books whose fifteen minutes of publicity have passed. One such book, Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, couldn’t be more relevant to tonight’s theme. In every age, the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas, Marx said. But in every age, this ideological hegemony is achieved differently. Jacoby shows how capitalism does it: by weeding out the laid-back, part-time jobs in libraries, bookshops, and universities on which young, not-yet-established intellectuals—like me thirty-five years ago—have always depended; by eliminating the cheap, funky urban neighborhoods where they lived and congregated; by consolidating the publishing industry and saddling its editorial side with the brainless, bottom-line-driven demands of the marketing side; by moving in on the universities, subjecting them to the relentless bureaucratic imperatives of “productivity.” The logic of the market is inexorable, squeezing out every pocket of inefficiency, every corner where aspiring independent intellectuals might thrive.
The antidote to a market economy is a gift economy. Another wise and eloquent book that deserves to be remembered is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Hyde shows how artistic and intellectual exchange form a gift economy, whose principal dynamic is not self-interest but gratitude. When we’re young, our souls are stirred, our spirits kindled, by a book or some other experience; and in time, when we’ve matured, we look to pay the debt, to pass the gift along.
From Middlemarch, On Liberty, The Soul of Man under Socialism, from Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Noam Chomsky, Dwight Macdonald, Christopher Lasch, Barbara Ehrenreich, and many others—some up here on the stage and some in the audience—I’ve received gifts so precious that they’ve made life seem worth living, even through hard times, and made passing on some fraction of what I’ve received seem like a worthwhile vocation. I wish each of you such gifts, and I thank you all from the heart for coming tonight.
[*] And although I could find no evidence that Einstein uttered George’s famous line, it is always possible that he did, or that he wrote it in a letter that is tucked away in someone’s filing cabinet or something. These things are never completely final.