February 26, 1998
By Steven Hayward
The Winter 1998 issue of The American Scholar is on newsstands
now. It's worth picking up, for it marks the end of a fine journal.
Its exemplary editor for 24 years, Joseph Epstein, is being shown
the door for not being politically correct.
The American Scholar is the official journal of the Phi Beta
Kappa Society, and readers have delighted in its independent,
eclectic, well-written, but never politically correct pages.
Epstein is a centrist politically. In today's hothouse
intellectual atmosphere, this makes him "objectively" right wing,
as ivory-tower Marxists would say. But you will strain ever to find
a single filament of partisanship in him.
Epstein managed to get the kind of articles rarely found in
today's academic or intellectual journals. He actually produced a
journal with readable articles about difficult and
interesting subjects, the kind of articles scholars used to write
before they started writing exclusively for each other.
Epstein barred all jargon and academic trendiness from his pages
- "I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy,"
he admits. He was unafraid of publishing someone who wrote in the
first person, an unusual voice for intellectual discourse.
Now and then, Epstein published a landmark article that became
must reading, such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "Defining
Deviancy Down" in 1994. The New York Democrat's essay described and
deplored the cumulative damage done to society by its willingness
to condone or explain away behavior and social pathologies that 30
years ago would have been clearly recognized as abominable or
Above all, The American Scholar was essential reading for
Epstein's own "familiar essays," which he offered each issue under
the pen name Aristides. This is writing as it's meant to be done, a
display of a literate mind at work, and always an uplifting read.
The essays were on engaging subjects such as "The Art of the Nap,"
or "Waiter, There's a Paragraph in My Soup."
In his final essay, entitled "I'm History," Epstein lets it all
hang out, telling the story - without naming names - of his
Epstein is no firebrand, so the frankness with which he
describes his ouster is bracing. It seems a gay rights group
started a letter writing campaign against Epstein because of an
article about homosexuality they thought Epstein had unfairly
delayed and improperly edited.
As Epstein tells the story, "This left an opening for those
people on the Phi Beta Kappa Senate who did not approve of the
magazine under my editorship to seek my dismissal. These were, for
the most part, academics who had an investment in feminism, black
history, and gay and lesbian studies. I had mostly treated these
subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them."
To the extent that he did cover these trendy subjects, he did so
with the spirit of "opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at
play, as if to say, 'Betcha didn't think their behinds were so
purple as that.'"
For example, he published several sparkling articles over the
years pointing out the mindlessness of "feminist theory." No wonder
the political correct crowd wanted to do him in. He committed the
unpardonable intellectual sin of our time: pointing out that the
emperor had no clothes.
But the final straw came when a foundation wanted to give the
journal a $2 million gift. "The generosity of the foundation was
viewed by the magazine's enemies," Epstein continues, "as a
right-wing plot to save the job of the editor." Epstein was out,
and the grant never accepted.
There is an important lesson here, and Epstein states it for us:
"[I]n academic argument, I have noticed, the radicals almost always
win, even though they rarely constitute a majority. Conservatives,
dependably a minority, usually don't care enough to take a strong
stand against them. Liberals, the poor darlings, though generally
the majority, are terrified of seeming to be on the wrong side of
things and so seek compromises that inevitably favor the
This sorry fact needs to change.
Originally appeared in Investor's Business Daily
A Victim of Political Correctness
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