Reviewed 10/30/2000

Drawing Life, by David Gelernter

DRAWING LIFE: Surviving the Unabomber
David Gelernter
New York: The Free Press, 1997




ISBN 0-684-83912-1 159pp. HC $21.00

In June of 1993, David Gelernter had just returned from a trip. Going through the accumulated mail in his office at Yale University's Computer Science Department, he opened a fat envelope and was badly injured by the bomb it contained — one of several sent by Theodore Kaczynski in his insane anti-technology crusade. (Irony of ironies: As he himself points out, Gelernter was far from the vigorous, uncritical booster of technology that Kaczynski apparently targeted.)

Gelernter's main point in this book is his struggle to recover from the physical and psychological damage inflicted by the Unabomber's cowardly and wrong-headed attack. It is a tale he recounts with considerable grace and wit, and with a few well-justified curses. His right eye was damaged, he lost some of his right hand, and in the event came near to death because he lost so much blood. By 1995, thanks to numerous operations and physical therapy, he had nearly recovered and was able to resume most of his former activities.

But Gelernter also makes several other points in these pages; and they are my primary concern. A Jew (his middle name is Hillel), and a man with a writer's insight, he perceives a great flaw in American culture. The flaw, he proclaims, is that we as a society have become "non-judgemental". On page 11 he gives several examples including O. J. Simpson's acquittal, and cites a 1996 book by Judge Harold Rothwax called Guilty: The Collapse of Criminal Justice for a more general opinion. Gelernter is disgusted when criminals are treated so unjustly; an advocate of the death penalty for capital crimes, he has the Jew's stern sense of justice. This attitude predated the Unabomber's attack; but that attack certainly reinforced it. He says on page 122:

The issue to my mind is how soon we forget the dead, assuming they are merely our fellow citizens — no more than that. It's hard for us to go on caring beyond a day or two, maybe a few weeks at the outside. But we show our respect for the dead, and proclaim the value of human life, by taking the trouble to execute murderers. Granted it's a terrific bother. Symbolism means nothing to us, and to go through a symbolic, ritual act that proclaims "this community condemns and will not tolerate murder" — a gruesome act that turns the stomach, when we have basically forgotten the reason — for us is hard. We'd a hell of a lot rather not bother. And vengeance? The families are chained down with grief forever. If an execution relieves them even in the slightest degree, and I think it does, then we ought to do it — and if you want to call that vengeance, fine. I call it plain decency. Another word for it is justice.

Gelernter's outrage comes through clearly in this passage. It is an outrage founded not only on his own injuries, but on the long-term changes in society he perceives and regards as destructive. These include a general decline in civility, in the respect for personal privacy, above all, in accuracy and truth. He ascribes the decline to an "intellectualization" of America's leadership classes beginning in about 1965. His experiences after the bombing threw the change into sharp relief: As he says on page 47, "There was nothing wrong with reporters wanting to interview me; I planned to talk to them, within reason, and have in fact talked to many. . . . But my experience with the press overall was so eye-opening it forced me to rethink everything I knew about American society." Reporters would call insistently, sometimes at impolite hours, their messages revealing an expectation of total compliance with their requests. Misunderstanding of Gelernter's positions was not uncommon; some even fabricated quotations from him in published articles. Many were both polite and fair; Gelernter is careful to single them out for praise. What he objects to is the feeding-frenzy horde that descended after the attack, and its attitude that reporters are God's gift to the public, who allow victims a long-denied chance to air their grievances. Above all, he hates being labeled a victim. [Page 46]:

A man wants to act, not be acted upon. Self-pity is a pile of bricks on your chest, and your real friends help you heave it off. Those of us who hate today's victim culture don't hate it because we are Teddy Roosevelts aiming to build character and toughen people up (not that there is anything wrong with that program); we hate it because it inflicts harm. When you encourage a man to see himself as a victim of anything — crime, poverty, bigotry, bad luck — you are piling bricks on his chest. How we can logically justify as a nation being in favor of self-pity and against smoking is not clear, but the inconsistency may be yet another symptom of our blindness to all things spiritual. Our fanatic drive to crush and eradicate every threat to our physical well-being has a sad air of compulsive busywork about it — we are the Lady Macbeth society, obsessively washing our hands to cleanse ourselves of sin, perfecting and purifying our bodies (no barest trace of "chemicals" allowed), as if that will cure our sick souls.

The world of 1940 is the standard1 against which Gelernter measures the present day; and in many respects the present falls short. He points out that crime, homelessness, divorce, abortion and unwed motherhood occur with an intrusive abundance that would astonish a time traveler from that earlier year. And he does not spare the public school system [Pages 89-90]:

I have two young children in school, and my wife and I struggle daily with an education culture that leaves crucial information out and puts nonsense and the occasional outright lie in its place. Just one family's experience, of course. But here is one devastating piece of evidence among millions that speak of the collapse of U.S. education: The number of parents who have removed their children from the schools altogether continues to grow. Today roughly 1,2000,000 school-age children are educated at home, more than New Jersey enrolls in its whole public school system. On the complete battery of standardized exams, home-schooled children average 37 points higher than public school children. Average spending per child at home is $546 a year, versus $5,325 a year in the public schools (excluding the cost of home or schoolhouse). The huge performance gap between black and white public school pupils on reading and math tests dwindles or vanishes among home-schooled children. Obviously the home-schooled children have certain big advantages: dedicated parents, dedicated teachers, private attention. But that 37-point gap is astonishing. If you saw a gap of that order between home-doctoring and professional physicians, you would draw the obvious conclusion that the medical "profession" is quackery and no profession at all.

Another cultural change that draws his ire is the feminist movement and the so-called breaking of the "glass ceiling". He points out that many women who wanted careers prior to 1960 got them2. As for the other major result of feminism, greater sexual freedom for women, he jibes on page 92, "A perversity of historic proportions: Feminists have helped create a utopia for loutish men."

We have here an account of two struggles: Gelernter's against the damage inflicted by a disabling bombing, and America's against a disabling cultural change. Gelernter is winning (largely has won) his struggle, and he remains confident that America will win hers — if not in his lifetime, then later. His views are controversial (and I do not agree with them all), but he supports them with cogent observations and plentiful citations. Read this book for its warnings, its idiosyncratic views, and its hopeful courage.

1 See his 1995 book 1939: The Lost Worlds of the Fair.
2 Here, Gelernter cites a 1996 essay: F. Carolyn Graglia, "The Breaking of the Women's Pact", Weekly Standard, November 11, 1996, 29ff.
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