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The Power of Men

A nasty editorial on the conservative opinion page of the Wall Street Journal has set off a cultural controversy just as the Biden family is about to take over the White House. Joseph Epstein called on Jill Biden to stop calling herself Dr. Biden. Epstein begins by addressing her as “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo”, then offers her this “advice”: “‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” His complaint is that her degree is in education, not medicine. He makes fun of her dissertation title as “unpromising”, then calls her “Dr. Jill”. He praises himself for refusing the title when he taught, although he hadn’t earned it.

Epstein was editor of “The American Scholar”, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, but has no advanced degrees, and apparently feels defensive about that. He asserts the conservative critique of American higher education as if it were fact: “The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences.” “In contemporary universities, in the social sciences and humanities, calling oneself Dr. is thought bush league.” I never knew that.

Most of his argument is irrelevant to his point, instead focusing on how honorary doctorates no longer carry any honor, although he did not refuse the honorary degree Adelphi University gave him in 1988.

I have never been a fan of using the address “Dr.” for PhD holders. My grandfather hoped I would follow in his footsteps and become a physician. When I decided on history instead of medicine, I gave up on being called Dr. Hochstadt. I prefer “Professor”, although conservatives tend to use that title as a pejorative. In Germany, my proper title would be “Prof. Dr.”, which I find amusing.

Epstein blithely ignores the tendency of men to denigrate women’s achievements while doing it himself. A relevant study of the way that men and women introduced each other at a medical conference found that women nearly always used the formal “Dr.” to introduce men, but men only used it half the time to introduce women.

Epstein’s offer of “advice” is hardly serious. If it were, he would not address Jill Biden as “Mrs.” or “Jill” and certainly not “kiddo”.

Epstein’s offer of “advice” is hardly serious. If it were, he would not address Jill Biden as “Mrs.” or “Jill” and certainly not “kiddo”. In the guise of making a point about the use of “Dr.” for holders of a doctorate, he is actually just insulting an accomplished woman. One woman’s remarkable memory of being in one of his literature classes at Northwestern University demonstrates the depths of Epstein’s sexism.

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Behind his sexism lies the typical right-wing condescension towards higher education. In a 2019 WSJ piece, he called college teaching a “sweet racket”, “essentially a six-month job, and without ever having to put in an eight-hour day.” He hates the recent, long overdue recognition of systemic racism and sexism. “I would also suggest dispensing with courses that specialize exclusively in victimology, the history of victim groups told from the point of view of the victims.” Epstein’s view of higher ed is encapsulated in the title of an essay he wrote for the WSJ 4 months ago: “Today’s College Classroom Is a Therapy Session”. Another thing I didn’t know.

At the moment when Joe Biden is finally declared officially President-elect, six weeks after the election, this clash of cultures may be a minor issue. Its value lies in demonstrating the core of right-wing culture: disdain for higher education; demeaning attitudes toward women, especially powerful women, and defense of sexist and racist language.

Epstein has long been extraordinarily insulting to people whose politics he didn’t like, calling feminist scholars “pit bulls” and “dykes on bikes”. He wrote in 1970, “I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth.” He used his position at The American Scholar to give cultural conservatives a platform, which he refused to liberals. In 2015, Epstein wrote an essay about Barack Obama as an “affirmative-action president”. He began by claiming that Obama was elected “partly for reasons extraneous to [his] political philosophy or to [his] merits”, but soon moved to asking why “we elect presidents of the United States not on their intrinsic qualities”, “not for themselves”, but “for their status as members of a victim group”.

Despite his pretensions to literary greatness, Epstein’s conservative politics lie behind all of his judgments. In September, he equated Trump’s and Biden’s levels of corruption, sexual harassment, and personal character. For a literary man, he apparently has no objection to the abysmal level of Trump’s use of the English language. Ten days after the election, Epstein called Donald Trump “one of the most effective ... one-term presidents in American politics”. Not a mention of his frauds, his dishonesty, or the pretense in which he was right then engaged of claiming that he had won. Epstein liked his conservative policies, exaggerated them, and made it seem that any criticism of him was “bias”.

In response to the storm of criticism that has appeared, Paul Gigot, the opinion editor of the WSJ, took shelter in the usual conservative defense of people who are nasty. The day after Epstein’s editorial, by which time the internet was on fire with criticism, Gigot employed the latest versions of the conservative complaint about “political correctness” to defend his own decision to print it.

steve hochstadt

Gigot lumped all the critics together as “the Biden team” employing “the big gun of identity politics” and “cancel culture”. He defended Epstein’s calling Jill Biden “kiddo” because Joe has called her that. One usage heartfelt, one demeaning.

And that’s the choice we all have. Use words to demean others or embrace them.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives