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On The Pompous, Malicious Intellectual Vacuity Of Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier has a meandering, conceptually confused, pointless essay in the upcoming issue of TNR sort of criticizing the latest loathsome hit piece from Bill Kristol, sort of defending it, but mostly subjecting readers to a masturbatory public display that goes on for just about 1000 words and feels like ten times that number. As Wieseltier winds things out having proved nothing, argued for nothing, expressed no worthwhile insight, and informed no one of anything, the masochistic reader who makes it all the way to the end is treated to this:

And now for the grossly undialectical bit. The ink on the Times was not yet dry when Andrew Sullivan rushed to the defense of his idol, I mean Obama. When one types all the time, sooner or later everything will be typed, and so Sullivan, in his fury against Kristol, typed this: "A non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his faith." Ponder that early adjective. It is Jew baiting. I was not aware that only Christians can judge Christians, or that there are things about which a Jew cannot call a Christian a liar. If Kristol is wrong about Obama, it is not because Kristol is a Jew. So this fills me with a certain paschal wrath. Nice little blog you have there, Obama boy. Pity if frogs or locusts should happen to it. Let my people be!

"Ponder that early adjective," Wieseltier writes, referring to Sullivan's description of Kristol as a "non-Christian manipulator of Christianity." If you're not determined to be a willfully obtuse prick, then also ponder the noun it modifies — "manipulator." What Sullivan is obviously saying is that Kristol's affectation of taking offense to a slight to Christianity is a transparently cynical imposture on the part of a man who in fact regards sincere Christians as an alien species that happens to be useful in serving his electoral ends. Why is it obvious that that's what Sullivan is saying? That question has an overdetermined answer: It's obvious because, agree or disagree with him generally, Sullivan is obviously not a "Jew baiter" of any kind; it's obvious because the context of Sullivan's criticism of Kristol makes it obvious; and most of all, it's obvious because no honest, competent, minimally-educated speaker of the English language could interpret Sullivan any other way.

However, if, like Wieseltier, you'll let nothing stop you from being a willfully obtuse prick — say, because you think it's okay to smear somebody as an antisemite if that'll help even scores in a twelve-year-old schoolyard feud, and your editor doesn't have the guts to tell you "no" — you'll hardly let little things like intellectual defensibility or fundamental decency get in the way of a satisfying slander. And if you've gotten that far thinking your case that Sullivan is a bigot could persuade anyone who read the original quote — or didn't read the original but knows anything about Sullivan, or didn't read the original and doesn't know anything about Sullivan but knows the definitions of English words and idioms and the syntactic rules combining them into sentences — you're not terribly likely to notice the irony of first accusing a 44-year-old married gay man with degrees from Oxford and Harvard of "Jew baiting" and then calling him a "boy."

Of course Wieseltier didn't intend an anti-gay slur (except in the accidental allusion to Obama girl and the implication it entails that Sullivan's attraction to Obama's candidacy is sexual). All Wieseltier intended was an ugly cheap shot at an old enemy, and was so intent on getting the cheap shot off that he didn't mind its being a witless non-sequitur — though nothing in the Wieseltier piece follows from anything else, so this particular digression into inanity isn't necessarily suggestive. But never mind any of that. Let's adopt Wieseltier's interpretive standards. By those lights, Wieseltier has leveled a disgraceful swipe at the dignity of gay men and women, and should be held accountable for it.

There is no reasonable interpretive standard under which Wieseltier is guilty of gay-baiting, and even if Wieseltier can't be bothered to extend intepretive charity, you and I are better than Wieseltier and should do so. No matter how forgiving our interpretive standards, however, there is no way of getting Wieseltier off the hook for his suggestion that the smear of Sullivan is the only "grossly undialectical bit" in his essay. No public intellectual is able to pack more elementary philosophical errors — mistakes for which a sophomore concentrator in a rigorous course would be swiftly reprimanded and never make again — into fewer column inches than Wieseltier, and his latest conceptual trainwreck doesn't fail to deliver its share of whoppers. I'll mention only one, which is perhaps the most telling. Discussing the motives behind religious belief, Wieseltier writes that "It is because suffering is so hospitable to illusion that philosophers have often made an ideal out of lucidity."

Sorry no, that's simply wrong. The first consciously philosophical embrace of lucidity as an ideal comes from Plato's Republic, in the form of an argument that allowing standards of lucidity to grow lax will leave the politeia vulnerable to political demagogues. Nearer to our own time, when philosophy adopted lucidity as a necessary but insufficient standard for getting to take part in the enterprise at all, it was as part of a turn away from metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, and towards language and logic, on the grounds that slovenly logic had produced philosophical abortions like, say, most of the corpus of Continental post-Hegelianism at the turn of the twentieth century. For both the Greek logicians and the founders of analytic philosophy — the schools that accord lucidity a place among the chief philosophical virtues — lucidity is virtuous because it is necessary for doing good philosophy. Ponderous introspection about notions like "the nature of suffering," on the other hand, tends to be a hallmark of excruciatingly bad philosophy. (Not that it's impossible to do that sort of thing well; but the odds are stacked against it.)

Why is this confusion important? Because it dramatically sharpens the contrast between what Leon Wieseltier thinks he knows, and what Leon Wieseltier actually knows. It takes a staggering ignorance of the philosophical tradition to make Wieseltier's claim, an ignorance that pervades virtually everything he writes about the subject. (Read this if you think that's hyperbole.) Which raises the question, How could someone who knows so little philosophy and is so bad at the philosophy he does know conjure up the arrogance required to make embarrassingly misinformed, sweeping generalizations about it? In researching the origins of Wieseltier's beef with Sullivan (the rumor is that Wieseltier helped engineer Sullivan's ouster from TNR), I think I found the answer in an old Sam Tanenhaus profile of the pompous fraud:

A prestigious Kellett fellowship took Wieseltier to Oxford in the fall of 1974 to study philosophy, but when he got there ''philosophy at Oxford was in transports of logical notation,'' he remembers. ''I had no interest in studying mathematical logic or the logical analysis of language.''

Allow me to translate that: Real philosophy is hard, so rather than even try to do it, Wieseltier spent his fellowship sucking up to Isaiah Berlin and quit grad school a few years later, at a time when it was still possible to become a celebrated public intellectual without having expertise in anything. Over the next thirty some-odd years, having turned enough clever phrases and misappropriated enough philosophical concepts to secure a reputation among easily deceived people as a learned man — thereby validating Plato's warning — Wieseltier came to believe his own delusional self-flattery.

Which brings us, finally, to the voice in the whirlwind coda to the smear of Sullivan, wherein he enjoins God to bring plagues down on Sullivan's blog. Since the first four paragraphs of the essay have no point, the puerile score-settling of the last paragraph at least serves to lend them a vicarious point. But why leave it at that? Surely Wieseltier could not be expected to pass up the opportunity the calendar provides him to compare himself to Moses — or, as he would prefer, gives Moses the opportunity to be compared to Leon Wieseltier.

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