To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein, in your pages, has abused his position as editor of the American Scholar. In his essay, “The Education of an Anti-Capitalist” [August], he says he spoke “over the telephone with a philosopher who had sent an essay to the American Scholar (of which I am the editor) about intellectuals and capitalism.” Mr. Epstein says he found the essay interesting but was unpersuaded; he goes on to offer a two-paragraph summary of the essay and a one-paragraph rebuttal of its argument, all by way of introducing his own memoir.
I am the author of that essay, submitted to the American Scholar several months ago. During the telephone conversation with Mr. Epstein, though I disagreed with his criticisms, I said that some rewriting might make it clearer why these criticisms didn’t apply and that I probably would send to him the rewritten version for reconsideration for publication. (I do not wish to discuss here the substance of my essay; its readers, when it appears, will be able to decide for themselves whether Mr. Epstein’s summary and criticisms are apt.)
Perhaps Mr. Epstein begins his memoir with a summary and criticism of my essay as a way of acknowledging that reading my essay stimulated his. But Mr. Epstein did not ask my permission to summarize my unpublished essay which he was sent in his editorial capacity; he did not write to ask if I still planned to publish my essay and wished him to delay publishing his discussion of it until after mine had appeared; he did not send me a copy of his essay in advance or give me any indication that he planned to make his own use of my material which he had received and rejected as editor of the American Scholar.
My essay, it should be said, did not arrive at the American Scholar from out of the blue. In a letter to me of August 9, 1982, on American Scholar stationery listing him as editor, Mr. Epstein wrote to me the following letter. (I wouldn’t normally quote in print a letter someone has written to me, but given its official character and given the ensuing events I trust its publication will be seen to be appropriate.)
I have been reading Philosophical Explanations with great pleasure, and wanted, first, to tell what pleasure the book has given me, and, second, to invite you to write for the American Scholar. Is there, I wonder, something you are working on at the moment that might be suitable for the American Scholar? Is there something you might like to set to work on with the magazine in mind? Do let me hear from you about this. I am very keen on having you write something for us.
No doubt, there are some intricate issues in delineating how and when an editor/writer may utilize a knowledge of manuscripts he has gained through exercise of his office. However, the present case is not a complicated borderline case. It is simply an egregious abuse of editorial office. It seems to me that Mr. Epstein owes me an apology in these pages.
I am puzzled about why COMMENTARY’s editors, who participated in Mr. Epstein’s actions by printing his essay, did not exercise more editorial control. (Perhaps they or Mr. Epstein believed writers were entitled only to the minimal protection of not being named as authors of rejected manuscripts, but even then, since my ideas were being summarized, shouldn’t I have been asked which I preferred, anonymity or attribution? And after my essay was published elsewhere, couldn’t people then put two and two together to infer that it had been previously rejected by the American Scholar?) Did COMMENTARY’s editors raise any questions with Mr. Epstein about the propriety of his action or do they endorse his practice as perfectly proper? Must potential contributors to COMMENTARY also worry, as potential contributors to the American Scholar now must, that, without permission or consultation, their ideas may be summarized and criticized before appearing in print?
To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein is certainly a sly one when it comes to distorting the words of others for his own purposes. His contribution to the August issue provides new evidence of this, supporting the complaint of your correspondent Ruth Miller in the same issue. Mr. Epstein’s article, “The Education of an Anti-Capitalist,” opens with a reference to “a letter that the sociologist Dennis H. Wrong wrote to this magazine indicating that I had betrayed the cause, given up the fight, and gone over to the enemy. ‘Retreated’ was the word Wrong used.”
My letter mentioned Mr. Epstein only incidentally and merely noted that he had changed his political views since 1973. What I wrote was: “. . . nearly a decade ago Joseph Epstein attacked [the neoconservatives], singling out COMMENTARY, as ‘intellectuals in retreat,’ but Mr. Epstein has since decided to retreat himself and become a COMMENTARY regular.” “Retreated” was Mr. Epstein’s own word, not mine, as he insists a second time in the last paragraph of his August article. He used the word in the very title of the earlier article to which I referred: “The New Conservatives: Intellectuals in Retreat,” Dissent, Spring 1973, pp. 151-62.
No doubt Mr. Epstein will dismiss this as he did Ruth Miller’s complaint as a pedantic quibble. I dislike, however, being accused of something I have always detested, namely, the habit of some people who identify with “the Left” of charging those who shift to more conservative opinions with having “sold out.” I detest equally the habit of some conservatives of claiming that intellectuals who hold “left-wing” views do so because they resent the wealth and power of businessmen or out of craven conformity to the allegedly conventional beliefs of the academic intelligentsia. Mr. Epstein rejects the first argumentum ad hominem, but heartily endorses the second, confessing that he himself once fell prey to it but has now courageously become an independent thinker in daring to find virtues in capitalism.
I must say that Mr. Epstein’s 1973 Dissent article did not strike me, then or now, as being suffused with the “anti-capitalist” and “anti-American” outlook he says he cherished during his years as a conformist intellectual. His major targets in the article were Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Daniel P. Moynihan (not yet a Senator). While praising them for their opposition to the New Left, he observed that since the disappearance of that short-lived political tendency their attitudes had hardened into a rigid ideological stance—“intellectual monomania,” he called it—that seemed to deny that there were any real social problems in America at all requiring even modest efforts at reform. He has now evidently persuaded himself that any preoccupation with what he described ten years ago as “millions of people in America still living quite wretchedly, and the conditions of others worsening” is necessarily anti-capitalist, and anti-American as well since “the logic of anti-capitalism ends, inevitably, in anti-Americanism.” Even attacks on “cultural philistinism” are by definition anti-capitalist and anti-American. I do not recall seeing so total an identification of America and all it contains with capitalism outside of the ranks of the most doctrinaire Marxists.
I also find it rather surprising to be told that the real enemy was always capitalism, and, inferentially, America, for writers and intellectuals as diverse as Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Goodman, Lewis Coser, Irving Howe, and Dwight Macdonald, none of whom was, or is, a doctrinaire Marxist committed to the view that no improvements in the human condition are possible short of the abolition of capitalism. But then Mr. Epstein thinks that reading Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Freud, and Dostoevsky induces “antipathy to business” and, as B follows A, to America. Whether these views represent a retreat or an advance when compared with Mr. Epstein’s earlier ones, I confess that I find them intellectually gross.
Dennis H. Wrong
Princeton, New Jersey
To the Editor:
What is this? Joseph Epstein pauses in a long-winded explication of his personal journey toward capitalism to take a gratuitous slap at William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review? Perhaps now that he has come to see the value of Buckley’s economics he will attempt to grasp Buckley’s manners. Back in those days when Mr. Epstein was lost in the ardors of gauchisme, National Review was fighting the good fight and almost alone. Now that Mr. Epstein has come to see the light, it ill behooves him to scorn National Review on the grounds of taste.
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein’s “The Education of an Anti-Capitalist” . . . is intended to chronicle the painful journey from shallow radicalism to a more mature acceptance (embrace?) of the status quo. Indeed, Mr. Epstein manages to summarize the entire corpus of what might be termed (pace Hugh Hefner) the COMMENTARY Philosophy. Thus, those obstinately adhering to outworn radical shibboleths are indicted on familiar counts of elitism, dogmatism, and anti-Americanism. . . .
Mr. Epstein’s academic friend Jack is cited as typifying the radical intellectual breed. Like Mr. Epstein himself, Jack “has no real training in economics,” so that “his dislike of capitalism begins and ends in aesthetics.” Poor fellow—outside his area of intellectual expertise (English literature, perhaps?), Jack is obviously a naif and a dilettante whose social marginality explains his need for radical “crutches.” . . .
Yet Mr. Epstein’s analysis is noteworthy—if only because its many confusions and contradictions confirm the writer’s own alienation from that real-life travail endured by millions of his fellow citizens. Thus, one can only puzzle over the claim that pollution is an “aesthetic” problem—certainly I have never encountered any serious person who couched it, exclusively or primarily, in those terms, for what is really at issue is the health and welfare of the average person. Similarly, who would regard failure to provide decent jobs at decent pay—indeed, to provide any jobs at all for 10 percent of the work force—as an “aesthetic” issue?
Finally, while there is much laughable hyperbole in Mr. Epstein’s analysis (e.g., his extraordinarily ill-informed remarks on higher education), his real zinger is the contention “that if you are against capitalism, you have also to be, in a spiritual sense, against America, the capitalist country par excellence.” Dr. Johnson would have known what to make of such a comment. As for myself, like most other radicals, I will continue to be “against capitalism” precisely because I am “for” America.
David H. Katz
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan
To the Editor:
. . . It has been my experience that writers educated by the University of Chicago (or teaching there) require a secret reading. Not that they should be read on the sly, though this is sometimes advisable. Rather, they like to present their real message hidden within a public or explicit one. The implicit or secret teaching can be divined only by very careful readers, for whom, of course, the hidden teaching was all the while intended. . . .
Mr. Epstein argues on the surface that he simply became a critic of the new conventional wisdom which had become anti-capitalist. No, it’s more complicated than that. The key (or “major key,” as Henry James would say) is the frequency of Mr. Epstein’s joke-telling. He gets off at least forty-seven, some at others’ expense (such as the poor soul who was led to believe that Trotsky never tipped—and the untipped victims of this poor soul’s credulity), and all the more telling, in their quiet way, for that reason.
These jokes indicate that Mr. Epstein’s turning away from anti-capitalism has much to do with his sense of humor, not his political philosophy or the plain ideological idiocy of those around him. The true teaching, then, is that his revolution of the mind came about because anyone with wit can’t be a radical, at least not for more than a few paychecks. Radicalism is incompatible with getting good yuks out of life. Lenin was not a comic; revolution is no comedy. These are Mr. Epstein’s genuine lessons, his true reasons. . . .
William Johnston, Jr.
To the Editor:
. . . My own experience is different from Joseph Epstein’s. Ever since I entered the university scene, I have tried to defend capitalism to American professors, mostly philosophers. In most cases the reason they hang on to their anti-capitalist ideas is that they believe that something might be better and one must in any event fight for that. In short, a kind of simple utopianism, based on the otherworldly ethics of both Christianity and Marxism, leads many of them to refuse to give their support to a system which, in the last analysis, is best “merely” for human life here on earth, at least for the time being.
Tibor R. Machan
To the Editor:
Inasmuch as the Letters from Readers section is COMMENTARY’s crowning glory—outraged readers’ . . . denunciations capped by cool authors’ devastating point-by-point ripostes—how sad that the young Joseph Epstein, torpedoed so neatly by his older self in “The Education of an Anti-Capitalist,” isn’t around to defend himself. Perhaps Mr. Epstein can choose from among his students some particularly serious, intelligent, talented, and articulate young anti-capitalist fool to act as young Epstein’s intellectual successor and literary executor. At any good university there should be plenty of candidates.
Studio City, California
Joseph Epstein writes:
“Never apologize, never explain” is normally a sensible rule to apply to reactions to one’s own writing, but in the case of Robert Nozick’s reaction to my essay I wish to break the rule. I should like first to apologize and then to explain.
I am sorry for any embarrassment I may have caused Mr. Nozick by summarizing his unpublished article in my essay. This, I hope he will believe, was not my intention.
Which leads into my explanation. Things occurred as Mr. Nozick describes in his letter. I invited him to write for the American Scholar; he sent me his essay; I criticized the essay, and we discussed my criticisms, over the telephone, in a most amiable fashion. As I recall, Mr. Nozick remarked that some of my criticisms seemed sensible to him; that he would think further about them; and that he would get back to me before too long. When after a few months he did not get back to me, I thought that he had abandoned his article, and so I felt that I was well within my bounds in summarizing the argument of the article, without mentioning the name of the author, in my own essay. So confident was I that I had done no wrong that I even directed COMMENTARY to send a copy of my essay to Mr. Nozick “at the suggestion of Joseph Epstein.” I was mistaken, and I apologize.
It is a pleasure not to have to apologize to Dennis H. Wrong. I thought only certain literary critics at Yale went in for misreading texts, but Mr. Wrong could teach them a thing or two. I did not say that people hold anti-capitalist views out of cowardliness or resentment; I did say that the intellectual tradition in this country is overwhelmingly anti-capitalist, which is quite a different thing. Nor do I wish to deny now that, yes, millions of people in America live wretchedly. But I think it has become fairly clear that ideas of the kind that Mr. Wrong and the editors of Dissent and anti-capitalists generally put forth to improve the condition of the poor have already shown themselves to do nothing of the kind. Nor did I ever say that Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes, et al. were, or are, doctrinaire Marxists. I said that they all operated under a strong anti-capitalist bias. I think Mr. Wrong would have done better to have attempted to show that they didn’t. Or to show that the kind of anti-capitalism I discussed in my essay does not lead to anti-Americanism. Or to deal straight on with any of the points raised in my essay. But why argue seriously when it is so much simpler to call one’s adversary intellectually gross?
It is difficult not to be charmed by the good will implicit in a letter such as that of R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., which refers to my essay as a “long-winded explication.” Allow me, briefly, to respond to his short-winded letter. I fear I must invite Mr. Tyrrell to go back into the files to read the issues of the early years of William F. Buckley’s National Review. There he will find defenses of Senator Joseph McCarthy, of states’ rights against civil rights, and in particular of Generalissimo Franco by a writer named L. Brent Bozell that I think may shiver even Mr. Tyrrell’s conservative timbers. Then there was the sophomoric humor of the magazine—some of which has been picked up by Mr. Tyrrell’s own publication, the American Spectator. One of the great banes of the Left has been its humorlessness; yet one of the great banes of the Right is, precisely, its humor. But I grow long-winded.
Finally, I was brought up by the last line of David H. Katz’s letter, in which Mr. Katz puts forth the thesis that he, along with other radicals, will continue to be against capitalism “precisely because I am ‘for’ America.” I felt as if I had flicked the radio dial to a rendition of “Moon Over Miami” or “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” In other words, I used to sing Mr. Katz’s song myself. What I hated about capitalism, what I disliked about America as it was currently constituted, was that it wasn’t as good as it might be, it wasn’t as good as it ought to be—it wasn’t as good, as fine, as noble, not to put too fine a point on it, as I.