February 26, 1998 | Commentary on Political Thought
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 barbaric.
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 demise.
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 radicals."
This sorry fact needs to change.
Originally appeared in Investor's Business Daily