Trelawney was always changing his style—even his name, too, I believe, which is, of course, no more Trelawney than my own is. Nor does anyone know why he should be addressed as Doctor.”
—Anthony Powell, The Kindly Ones (1962)
Joseph Epstein is indisputably one of America’s finest essayists. He is also one of the most wide-ranging. He writes lively and companionable reconsiderations of such major writers as Matthew Arnold, Henry James, and George Santayana. These are intellectually substantial pieces whose learning is considerable but lightly worn.
He writes occasional essays after the fashion of a Mencken, a Macaulay, or a Montaigne. And he writes brief, timely op-eds whose hallmarks are humor, moral insight, and quiet humanity. Epstein is sometimes decorously polemical. He is always entertaining.
Epstein is no stranger to controversy. He has, in the course of a long career, often attracted the ire of the politically correct establishment. Dyspeptic feminists, especially, exhibit an allergy to his writing, as do other scolds, churls, and campaigners for causes—anyone, in short, more generously endowed with a sense of his or her own election than a sense of humor.
Although he is the recipient of many awards and honors, Epstein’s trespasses against the brittle carapace of sisterhood have not proceeded without cost to him professionally. It was one such foray, for example, that ended his editorship of The American Scholar (1975–97), a literary quarterly that flourished greatly under his guidance but that has since declined into a backwater of unread and unreadable bulletins from the babbling fount of inveterate self-congratulation.
Epstein’s latest’s transgression appeared last month in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. It was a light-hearted op-ed called “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” In it, Epstein pokes gentle fun at Jill Biden, who on January 20, 2021, is slated to become First Lady of the United States. He also offers her some sound advice. Some fifteen years ago, Mrs. Biden took an Ed.D. degree at the University of Delaware with a dissertation on—wait for it!—“Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.”
Apparently Mrs. Biden likes to call herself “Dr. Biden,” a proclivity that Epstein says “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” She should, Epstein advised, drop the title, if for no other reason than it communicates less honor than affectation and social insecurity.
In the United States, anyway, it is generally understood, though seldom mentioned in polite society, that the less distinguished one’s academic institution, the more likely one will insist upon the honorific “Dr.” And that’s for Ph.D. degrees. The degree of Ed.D.—officially a “doctor of education”—is, let’s be candid, more a certificate than a degree. Yes, one is entitled to the title “Dr.” But it’s only a short step, or half step, up from those entertainers and purveyors of boutique soaps who style themselves “Dr.” or “Doc”: “Dr. Bronner,” for example, or “Doc Watson.”
In this country, in most situations, “Dr.” is an honorific properly reserved for medical doctors. We understand that there are notable exceptions—“Dr. Henry A. Kissinger” comes to mind—but exceptions do not make the rule.
In short, we believe that Mr. Epstein was doing Mrs. Biden a favor by pointing this out—though it is doubtless true that he was also doing his readers a favor by pointing it out publicly. “Delicious” was the word many connoisseurs employed.
But neither Team Biden nor the woke establishment that embraces the Bidens appreciated the effort. Indeed, their response was swift, irate, and uncompromising. In a robust response to the response, Paul A. Gigot, the editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, described the tsunami of complaint that Epstein’s article elicited. It started slowly, he noted, but quickly grew to “a flood of media and Twitter criticism, including demands that I retract the piece, apologize personally to Mrs. Biden, ban Mr. Epstein for all time, and resign and think upon my sins.” Clearly, he concluded, the outcry was a calculated “political strategy.”
Michael LaRosa, Mrs. Biden’s press secretary, sounded the gong of feminist outrage. “If you had any respect for women at all,” he wailed in a tweet, “you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to her.” That imprecation was still reverberating when Doug Emhoff, the husband of Kamala Harris, assured the world that “Dr. Biden earned her degrees through hard work and pure grit.” Not just grit, you see, but pure grit in pursuing, like a pedagogical gastroenterologist, “student retention” at community colleges!
We suspect that Gigot is correct. “My guess,” he said, “is that the Biden team concluded it was a chance to use the big gun of identity politics to send a message to critics as it prepares to take power. There’s nothing like playing the race or gender card to stifle criticism.” No, indeed, there isn’t. And Northwestern University, the institution at which Epstein taught for many years, got the memo.
A communiqué from the English department came wrapped up in snotty academic presumption just in time for the holidays. “The Department is aware that a former adjunct lecturer [a former adjunct lecturer, mind you, not one of us important tenured profs] who has not taught here in nearly 20 years has published an opinion piece that casts unmerited aspersion on Dr. Jill Biden’s rightful public claiming of her doctoral credentials and expertise.” An official university bulletin expanded on this theme of credentialism. “Joseph Epstein was never a tenured professor at Northwestern [er, so what?] and has not been a lecturer here since 2002.” Then comes one of our favorite wheezes, asserting your commitment to something you actually despise and reject: “While we firmly support academic freedom and freedom of expression [sure you do], we do not agree with Mr. Epstein’s opinion and believe the designation of doctor is well deserved by anyone who has earned a Ph.D., an Ed.D., or an M.D.” They conclude by firing up the beacon of virtue signaling and letting the light shine wide. “Northwestern is firmly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, and strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views.”
If Epstein were being misogynistic in pointing out a home truth to Jill Biden, was The Washington Post engaging in xenophobia when it made fun of the foreign-born Hungarian-American commentator and Trump supporter Sebastian Gorka for identifying himself as “Dr. Gorka?” He “likes to be called ‘Dr. Gorka,’ ” WaPo sniffed in 2017. But “he gets his way only in conservative media.” And what about Ben Carson? The current Secretary of hud is also the former Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, that is, a real doctor. Yet The New York Times regularly identifies him as “Mr. Carson” even as it lovingly refers to Jill Biden as “Dr.” Is that racist, or is it merely intolerant woke leftism in action? As the author and commentator Glenn Reynolds sharply observed, “It’s good to see the weight of our journalistic and academic establishments being brought to bear to protect the self-esteem of a rich, powerful white woman.”
In an American context, Melania Trump is a genuine exotic. She hails from a small country in the Balkans, is fluent in half a dozen languages, and has devoted herself with what Mr. Har—er, Emhoff—might call “hard work and pure grit” to achieve success far from the coddled purlieus of government sinecure. We do not remember a single women’s magazine featuring her on its cover over the last four years, despite her physical beauty and glamour. The New York Times has not been rushing puff pieces about her into print, nor has academia rallied round with its lackeys to flatter her.
Last month, after the electors met to cast their votes for him, Joe Biden once again made a plea for unity. “Now it’s time to turn the page . . . to unite and to heal,” he said. We applaud that sentiment. But we wonder what he means by “unite” and “heal.” To judge by the actions of the institutions supporting his cause in this sorry episode, “turning the page” might just be euphemism for sweeping everything and everyone out of step with his program into the oubliette. It was not an encouraging sign that Northwestern University, in addition to issuing its pronunciamentos about Epstein, should go full Orwell (or full Stalin) and erase him from their website listing emeriti faculty, despite those earnest declarations of support for “academic freedom and freedom of expression.” As Gigot warned in his column for TheWall Street Journal, “This is how cancel culture works.”
It is very rare that Gigot responds in print to criticism of what appears in his pages. Doubtless this is because he understands that criticism is a natural part of the metabolism of opinion journalism. In the normal course of our political life, it is not only expected but salutary. People have different points of view about contentious issues. A respectful airing of those differences is or should be part of the lifeblood of democracy. If Gigot stepped into print over this contretemps, it was not so much to defend Epstein or even to respond to the chihuahua-like yapping of his interlocutors. It was to sound an alarm against that “big gun of identity politics” he found operating in the background.
The governing strategy of identity politics is not to encourage free expression but to shutter it. In essence, it is a totalitarian enterprise, deploying the shibboleths of race, gender, and radical egalitarianism to enforce a stultifying conformity. It is heartening to see Gigot affirming that, at one of our nation’s most important newspapers, “these pages aren’t going to stop publishing provocative essays merely because they offend the new administration or the political censors in the media and academe.” If, as we suspect, the preview we just witnessed was a sort of sighting shot, it suggests that Gigot is going to have his hands full dealing with ever more intolerant efforts to “turn the page” and enforce ghastly new modes of “healing” and “unity.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 5, on page 1
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