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America Lite How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) By  David Gelernter

Review of: America Light
David Gelernter

Reviewed by:
On July 7, 2014
Last modified:July 6, 2014


This not a cheerful book, although the author leavens it with large helpings of humor. And he does manage to end on a hopeful note. He reminds readers that America has a history of over coming bad times. He declares that we will do it again.

America LightThis reviewer found much to like in David Gelernter’s delightful, politically incorrect book. As the subtitle indicates, he links the ascendance of Barack Obama to the political indoctrination churned out by the nation’s colleges. He names the “Great Reform of elite American colleges” and “the rise of Imperial Academia” as the two forces responsible for the cultural revolution that brought Obama and his army of progressives to power.

He catalogues the effects of this seismic change in American mores on civility, male-female relations, and the warping of the rights we used to call self-evident. He explains why the huge increase in the number of college graduates that began 67 years ago did not elevate the culture but instead spewed vulgarity and tastelessness in popular entertainment, and in what passes for music, literature and the arts in America today.

Gelernter begins, as any serious discourse should, by defining his terms.

An intellectual is a theory maker. Intellectuals sit on their front porches cutting, sewing, patching; mending theories… An intellectual substitutes for the intractable bloody mess called reality a seamless silken tapestry of pure ideas. 

All thinkers use abstraction and invent theories; inventing theories is thinking. But a theory must be transparent and flexible to be any good. When facts change or new facts emerge, the theory must be adjusted or, if need be, thrown out. An effective thinker cares passionately about theories and abstractions but is obsessed with reality, keeps his eye on the ball, never loses sight of the facts. 

Intellectuals, however, are subject to a dangerous occupational hazard – dangerous to the rest of the world, that is. The hazard is to study theories instead of facts…

More precisely: most intellectuals are intelligent, but their insistence on peering at the world through cotton-candy theories means that, smart as they might be, they are (unfortunately) predisposed to beliefs that are silly and false.

Thinkers, writers, scholars and scientists “hunger for concrete detail.” But to an intellectual, details are annoyances. The author uses the example of a theory that all roses are yellow and the responses of thinkers and intellectuals when shown a pink rose.  An effective thinker will say, “I conclude that my theory must be wrong.”  An intellectual will say, “I conclude that this isn’t a rose.” When confronted by a reality that refutes some elegant theory the intellectual finds a dodge.

‘Disregard for truth and the preference for ideas over people,’ wrote the English historian Paul Johnson, ‘marks the true secular intellectual.’

That is a marvelously apt description of the progressives now steering the ship of state. They see the world, not as it is, but as they want it to be.

The “great reform” began with the elite universities. When they turned hard left, the rest of academia followed. WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were replaced by PORGIs (post-religious, globalist intellectuals).

The PORGIs are followed in turn by the Airheads or intellectulizers, who have passed through the schools and colleges and come out seeing the world just as they are supposed to see it…

Intellectuals invent theories and teach them to Airheads. Airheads learn them and believe them …Intellectuals don’t think, they have already thought… 

Airheads, on the other hand, never need to think at all. Theories and doctrine are laid out for them, like clothing for a young child by a thoughtful mother…

When required to defend their positions Airheads react emotionally, or avoid debate by claiming no discussion is necessary (the science is settled) and/or by impugning the motives of interlocutors. They just follow their president’s lead.

Gelernter views the WASP establishment and its efforts to gently nudge uncivilized Americans to refinement as smug and patronizing but essentially benign. Whereas the PORGI establishment wants to “hoist people aloft,” using the “PORGIFied schools and universities” all the way to PORGI Paradise and, not incidentally, rid the world of “reactionaries.”

The author takes readers on a tour of the events that brought about “the great reform” and turned Ivy League institutions into PORGI preserves. He cites the GI bill that supplied full scholarships and stipends to veterans who stormed the barricades of the institutions that formerly mostly housed the elites. He also attributes the change to the heightened status of science and medicine in the post war years and the subsequent expansion of the universities.

The biggest factor in the increased power and reach of the elite universities: far more Americans go to college now than in 1940. Only a small portion attends elite colleges, but the elite colleges strongly influence the rest. 

He notes that one of the important ways leading universities wield influence is through their schools of education, which send forth “a new group of fresh faced evangelists every year.”

Although the author does not mention it, this is an old story. The American educational establishment embraced progressive and “child centered” education in the 1930s. Those “reforms” in their various permutations over the years became rooted in teacher training institutions and in the US Department of Education. Publishers adhere to the narratives favored by college of education graduates – who make up textbook selection committees – and Common Core. This reviewer will have more about Common Core later.

The unifying theme of progressives since Woodrow Wilson is that to remedy society’s inequalities, students must be inculcated with the proper beliefs.

What began as subtle undermining of American ideals and history culminated in today’s overt indoctrination.

Students are ignorant of the past by design.

Learning history, literature and religion complicates the simple pieties of the cultural revolution. Airheads have accordingly done their best to eliminate those subjects. Teaching American history, aside from a few marvelously evil incidents out of context, is dangerous to a basic tenet of the cultural revolution and must accordingly be stopped. Nearly all cultural revolutionaries believe that America is at best nothing special, and often a wicked bully. PORGI Airheads found it hard to get excited about Obama’s sitting still and listening quietly to a black preacher scream “God damn America!” Most of them had listened quietly themselves to the same sort of statements  (perhaps less concisely expressed) plenty of times.

Gelernter summarizes the events of the 1960s and how the PORGIs took control and have been in charge ever since.

…(T)he intellectuals had captured the establishment and henceforth they were writing the newspapers and history books, and teaching the college courses and ed school courses.” 

In Peter Collier’s biography of Jeane Kirkpatrick (reviewed here) he describes Kirkpatrick’s dismay over the turbulent 1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago. She remembered her husband saying that the radicalism on violent display on the streets and within the convention might be the beginning of the end as Democrats for people like them. And it was.

Gelernter observes that with the PORGIs in charge we can be sure of only one thing: what seems beyond the pale today, what seems ludicrous or impossible will eventually becomes boiler plate if it leads leftward.

The attack on free speech leached from university campuses to the media and general population. Certain views are forbidden, punishable by what amounts to public shaming, job loss or worse. There are certain leftist commandments that must be followed:

Airheads all learn the doctrine that in any black-versus-white dispute, blacks are right–unless they are conservative, in which case they are not black.  

Airheads also learn that in any men-versus-woman dispute, the woman is right.

The left’s crusade to provide compensation payments to the descendants of former slaves elicits the following from Gelernter:

The theory holds, evidently, that non-perpetrators must compensate non-victims for crimes they never suffered– but would have, if they had been born two hundred years ago. (Probably. But this is only a detail.) Perhaps someone owes you money for a crime he never committed, but would have, if only you had both been born in some other century. Think of the possibilities!

In short, Gelernter explains how we got to where we are. And where we are is the Obama presidency.

Barack Obama and his generation of Airheads, the first ever coming of age after the cultural revolution, are unique in American history. All former leftist movements were driven by ideology. Obama’s is driven by ignorance…

He is important not because he is exceptional; he represents the post-cultural evolution of the PORGI elite…

Obama himself will go away like a bad cold, but there are many more where he comes from. Nowadays a new generation of Obamacrats enters the American bloodstream every year, in late spring, when fresh college graduates scatter like eager little birds or puffs of dandelion seed to deliver a new crop of Airhead left-wingery to the nation and the world…

Politicized schools are one-way streets: they all go left. American schools are a bizarre echo of Soviet schools, which used to teach that, whatever the issue, the USA was always wrong. Now American schools teach that, whatever the issue, the USA is always wrong.

The author provides a trenchant analysis of the Obama presidency, the president’s ignorance and his willingness to speak falsehoods even when he knows the truth. “If you like your health care plan…”

It’s hard to believe – it seems impossible – but the man we have elected president of the United States doesn’t know what he is doing. Of course he is smart, dignified, can be articulate, can be charming, can be funny. When we see these attributes, moreover in a president of the United States we take it for granted that he knows what he is about. When you are president, obviously you know the history of the United States and the modern world, and especially the long, sad series of events – from the First World War through the Second, and then the Cold War, and the strange dangerous decades since – that created the political landscape we happen to live in. That at a minimum is what a president needs to know.

There’s nothing unusual about these requirements. They are merely routine.  That is why we take it for granted that any potential president just knows them. (Obama majored in political science.)   And that, in turn, is why it is so difficult to grasp the truth about Obama. But he has so often spoken and acted is if he doesn’t know what he is doing, hasn’t mastered the minimum job requirements that at last we have to face the truth. The man does not know enough to be president…

That conclusion points to another, even more alarming. Obama graduated from some of the best law schools in America: Columbia and Harvard Law.

He isn’t especially ignorant. He is only the leading citizen of an ignorant generation. What does that say about our schools? About America in general?

The last chapter, the epilogue, is the weakest. Gelernter suggests that the solution to PORGIs entrenched in all levels of American education is to take education away from them by using the Internet to educate. But with Common Core alignment imposed on everything from kindergarten to ACT and SAT, and beyond, that is a dim prospect.

Which brings this reviewer to a few quibbles. Quibble 1 is that although Common Core was developing in 2009 it was well underway before America Lite was published in 2012. Perhaps the true dimensions of Common Core were not evident to the author but it’s hard to believe that the concept did not set off alarm bells given the book’s thesis. In any case, it seems a curious omission.

Quibble 1 1/2  is that he writes: “The cultural revolution began right after WWII and was concluded triumphantly around 1970.”

However, the cultural revolution began long before the mid 1940s. As Fred Siegel explains in The Revolt Against the Masses (reviewed here) the intellectual class, like termites, have been chomping away at the foundations of America since the 1920s. However, the events Gelernter cites infused the intellectual class with energy and reach it lacked before.

And a final quibble, Gelernter writes:

The old WASP establishment could have kept control; could at least have fought for control as they were besieged by swarms of stinging, biting dangerous new ideas. But they stepped aside.  They handed over the keys to the city without a fight, or without much of one. 

But the WASP establishment did not nobly step aside.  The bonanza of the GI bill was too good to turn down. The elites grabbed the gold and the rest came with it.

But those are minor criticisms of a book that should be read by anyone who has wondered how the old pieties and bedrock American values could be so carelessly cast aside. Offspring heading for college should be required by their parents to read America Lite. Forewarned is forearmed.

This not a cheerful book, although the author leavens it with large helpings of humor. And he does manage to end on a hopeful note. He reminds readers that America has a history of over coming bad times. He declares that we will do it again.




1 Jeff Edelman { 07.07.14 at 7:43 pm }

It occurred to me several years ago that these “intellectuals” weren’t real intellectuals. So, I began to refer to them as pseudo-intellectuals.


2 Marcia { 07.07.14 at 11:26 pm }

That works for me! Thanks for the comment, Jeff.


3 Trialdog { 07.10.14 at 5:25 am }

It is time for Harvard to pay reparations to the United States.
Yes, we can.


Marcia Reply:

Let’s not stop with Harvard. Thanks for commenting. Wish we could.


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