John Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and an adjunct scholar with the Midland, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
David Gelernter was a busy associate professor of computer science at Yale University, an artistic man who had entered software research because he wanted a trade. Then, going through his mail on June 24, 1993, he opened a book pouch from the Unabomber.
Badly mangled by the mail bomb–his right thumb and little finger gone, his right eye and lung badly damaged—Gelernter made a long, agonizing recovery: “it’s much harder to put things back together,” he writes, “than to smash them up.” With that truth as its theme, Drawing Life is his recovery’s narrative: absorbing, often moving, sometimes wryly humorous. Thus, on wearing an eye patch: “the elastic of the patch gives you a headache eventually–probably that’s why pirates are always in such a bad mood–and I don’t relish looking any stranger than strictly necessary, so hesitantly I remove it.”
One sentiment conspicuously absent is self-pity. The media’s fascination with him as a “victim” infuriated Gelernter, and he blasts the cult of victimhood, with its “demeaning and discouraging” promotion of self-pity. “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.” Hear, hear.
Prompted by his experience to switch careers to painting and writing, Gelernter also grasped that “a writer has a duty to say what is wrong about life in his country, also, to say what is right.” He uses his unique vantage point as a survivor of terrorism to make devastatingly apt observations on America, whose condition mirrors his: easily wrecked, hard to restore. Our passivity about bombings and other outrages–and, underlying it, a loss of capacity for moral outrage epitomized by the condemnation for being “judgmental”–especially appalls him. He rightly traces our explosion of crime and collapse of justice to our retreat from passing moral judgment and our blinking at the reality of evil, pointing out that “a society too squeamish to call evil by its right name has destroyed its first, best defense against cutthroats. Our best line of defense against crime is to hate it.” Free societies, modern America demonstrates, can’t beat crime by force alone. He also has hard and abundantly justified critics for collectivist feminism, which has been destructive of motherhood and the family; government schools; the collapsing respect for privacy; and collectivist intellectuals.
Gelernter attributes America’s change to judgment-averse intellectuals, who occupy the commanding heights and have “destroyed something basic in this society that has yet to be repaired.” That something is our prestigious colleges and universities, which now produce an intellectualized ruling elite hostile to, and anxious to coercively reform, both the American people and their beliefs.
While many factors have caused our troubles, Gelernter has ably fingered one of them. His prescription is a necessary step on the road back to national sense: reestablish institutions such as newspapers, magazines, and schools dedicated to truth-telling, high standards of workmanship, and affirming what’s good about America. As he rightly observes, if we don’t defend the good in our way of life, we risk losing it. Indeed, for all his anger, Gelernter is optimistic and affirmative: “To me no cause is lost,” he proclaims, adding, “Only when the basics of culture and morality are under attack do we have the privilege of seeing their beauty (like stars when the city lights go dim) as clearly as we do today.”
Besides being a wonderful read, a heartening account of triumph over a life-shattering setback, and a keen criticism of our time, Gelernter’s memoir is a salutary reminder of the crucial importance of beliefs, character, and soulcraft for individuals and free societies alike. Civilization requires a sound moral sense and the courage to be “judgmental”; without them, it comes apart, and the innocent are prey to evildoers. Short but powerful and provocative, Drawing Life is a splendid small jewel of a book.