With the former literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier and his formidable Old Testament prophet-meets-Beethoven affect, in the news again, it’s perhaps worth remembering his outraged reaction to The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in TNR in 1994:
Murray and Herrnstein protest that “the fascination with race, I.Q. and genes is misbegotten,” but a few pages later they mutter, about the “environment/genetic debate,” that “the question, of course, is fascinating.” The question, of course, is not fascinating. It is old, dreary and indecent, philosophically shabby and politically ugly. …
The scientism of Murray (I will refer only to him, since he is the principal author of what this magazine has published, and de mortuis nil nisi bonum) is a little quaint.
And it would be kind of silly for Wieseltier to imply that The Bell Curve is anti-Semitic since Herrnstein cowrote it, so Wieseltier gets around that problem by dropping Herrnstein’s name for the rest of his essay and denouncing only Murray. Granted, somebody might make fun of you for such a transparent ploy, but you are Leon Wieseltier so only Bad People would do that.
“The pariah status of intelligence as a construct and I.Q. as its measure,” he writes, “for the past three decades has been a function of political fashion, not science.” As if it were science that drew Murray to the subject! … The occult entity known as “g” is not exactly the sturdy stuff of, say, molecular biology.
Or so I imagine. I am not a scientist. I know nothing about psychometrics. Before Murray, I had never made the acquaintance of “visuospatial abilities” or “the digit span subtest.” I do not doubt that there is such a thing as intelligence, and that there are better and worse methods of measuring it. But Murray’s enterprise collapses, theoretically and morally, long before he gets to his graphs. For the question of the bearing of science on life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. There is not a graph in the world that will explain the place of graphs in the world.
That last line sounds like G.K. Chesterton if he smoked crack.
… I am not suggesting, of course, that Murray is an anti-Semite. Still, when I read, on page 275 of The Bell Curve, that “Jews — specifically, Ashkenazi Jews of European origins — test higher than any other ethnic group,” I am repulsed. I am repulsed not only because I would like to believe that what I will achieve in my life will be owed to myself and not to my group, though I am honored by my membership in my group; but also because there have been many scientistic comparisons of Jews and non-Jews during the past two centuries in which Jews did not “test higher,” and the consequences were catastrophic. What if the conclusions that Murray takes from the study that he calls “Storfer 1990” had turned out differently? How would he explain my failure to express the limitations of my group? Or would it be more appropriate, in the event of psychometric embarrassment, that I stop pretending and start tailoring?
These are not unintelligent questions.
Yes, they are.
I am, after all, an Ashkenazi Jew of European origins. More to the point, a retreat to tailoring is precisely what Murray would prescribe for a Jew who discovered, as the result of some new “definitive” measurement, that he was a member of the cognitive underclass.
Here’s gossip columnist Lloyd Grove’s 1995 Vanity Fair article about Wieseltier:
In literary terms, Wieseltier might be the Jewish, heterosexual answer to Oscar Wilde. It was Wilde, after all, who lamented, “I have put my genius into my life; all I’ve put into my works is my talent”—an observation that would seem to suit Leon Wieseltier. “Why don’t you take it a step further,” he suggests, “and call me the ‘Oscar very Wilde’?”
He’s been at The New Republic since 1982, frequently deploying his considerable influence outside his own section to shape the general content of the magazine. A series of frustrated top editors—whose superior rank on the masthead was no match for Wieseltier’s political muscle—has come and gone. His power flows from Marty Peretz, who lured him down from Harvard, having been dazzled by the young scholar over coffee on the Square.
“He was fluent and learned in almost everything one talked about,” recalls Peretz, who compares Wieseltier to the great Jewish philosopher Spinoza. “He’s pretty unusual in that he’s extremely cerebral and extremely what we used to call ‘hip.’ . . .