Declarations of Independence

Declarations of Independence

What Are Intellectuals Good For?
by George Scialabba
Pressed Wafer, 2009, 252 pp., $15, paper

I MADE MY FIRST acquaintance with George Scialabba’s work under unfortunate circumstances. It was the fall of 1995, and a colleague e-mailed me to complain about Scialabba’s review of Roger Kimball’s and Hilton Kramer’s Against the Grain: The New Criterion on Art and Intellect at the End of the Twentieth Century, which had just appeared in these pages. My friend was stunned that Scialabba appeared to come down on the Dark Side of the culture wars: “In its crusade against the politicization of contemporary culture, the New Criterion is—on the whole, in the main, and not to put too fine a point on it—right.” “Looks like the old Woody Allen joke has finally come to fruition,” my snarky colleague said. “Dissent and Commentary have merged to form Dysentery.”

I’ll admit that I laughed at the time—and that I didn’t like the review any more than my friend did. But that reaction, as Scialabba’s eloquent and provocative essays patiently demonstrate, was precisely what was wrong with the culture wars. People simply chose sides: everyone who wasn’t a paid-up supporter of the academic Left (all of it) was objectively reactionary, or, everyone who was a paid-up supporter of the academic Left (any part of it) was either a nihilist relativist multiculturalist (to critics on the right) or a jargon-spewing organization man (to critics on the Left). In that hothouse environment, almost everyone’s judgment was skewed: Scialabba, along with social democrats like Todd Gitlin and Richard Rorty, was labeled a right-wing deviationist and cast into the outer darkness, while on the other side, a lot of otherwise perceptive people succumbed to the delusion that Camille Paglia deserved serious attention. It must have been something in the socially constructed water.

Thanks to the publication of What Are Intellectuals Good For?, people like me—who came across Scialabba’s work randomly and irregularly, whenever and wherever his byline appeared—now have the opportunity to go back over those culture-war essays and discover that Scialabba was one of the very few left intellectuals whose judgment on such matters followed no party line whatsoever. Unlike the partisans of the academic Left, he was willing to try to take Edward Said down a notch while offering a few words of praise to the likes of Hilton Kramer and Victor Davis Hanson; unlike the detractors of the academic Left, he admired and ably defended the work of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. Scialabba was, and remains, unpredictable: a very good thing in the world of ideas, so long as one’s unpredictability does not generate into knee-jerk “contrarianism.” We can be thankful that Scialabba’s never does.

In his review of Against the Grain, for example, Scialabba is not tak...