The misogynist of my title, as Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, c’est moi. I became America’s most notable one on Saturday morning, December 12, upon the release of an 800-or-so-word op-ed I wrote in the Wall Street Journal published under the title “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not If You Need an M.D.” I had written the piece to get what I thought a minor pet peeve off my chest: the affectation of the president-elect’s wife in calling herself, and insisting that everyone else refer to her as, “Dr. Jill Biden.” She is not a physician; rather, she was awarded a degree by a graduate school of education. What I thought was a fairly light bit of prose whose intentions were chiefly comic set off a forest fire of anger toward, abuse of, and outright hatred for its author. It proves you can be a naïf even at the age of 83.
Nearly 5,000 readers wrote online to the Wall Street Journal to argue about my op-ed. My name “trended,” as they say, number one on Twitter. The New York Times published a full-blown article about it, as did the Guardian in England. My local (that is, Chicago) press and television channels ran stories about it. It was discussed on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show, where Mrs. Biden deplored “the tone” and said, “One of the things I love most is my doctorate…. I worked so hard for it.” Meanwhile, the English Department at Northwestern University, where I taught for 30 years, flushed me down Orwell’s memory hole by taking my name off its website and sending out an online message disassociating itself from my “noxious” and “misogynistic” views.
Fifty or so new reviews of my most recent book have appeared on Amazon since December 12, nearly all of them attacks on the book and on me personally (“Self-important, sexist, and droll.”) My entry on Wikipedia has also been radically altered. Where before it was straightforward and neutral, it now features me as a right-wing lout, with an entire paragraph given over to my Wall Street Journal op-ed. The entry suggests that my 23 years as editor of the American Scholar, where I thought I had a fairly good run, was one of constant baiting of liberals and liberal causes such that everyone at Phi Beta Kappa could not wait to be rid of me. These items and others suggest that these vigilante wokesters, whose work this is, travel in packs and like few things better than placing snakes under every rock one is likely to turn over.
Jill Biden was defended from my dastardly depredations by both Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. I was also chastened by Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten. One of Martin Luther King’s daughters chimed in, in defense of the use of “doctor” for non-physicians. Jill Biden took what these days passes for the high road by writing that during her husband’s administration, “we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.” Kamala Harris’s husband wrote on Twitter: “Dr. Biden earned her degrees through hard work and pure grit. She is an inspiration to me, to her students, and to Americans across this country. This story would never have been written about a man.”
Then there was the hate mail or, more accurately, hate email. Where else but on and through the Internet can you insult a person using the vilest possible language and not even have to go to the expense of a postage stamp to do so? At a rough estimate, I received more than 200 pieces of hate mail. The quality and nature of it is worthy of a bit of attention. First, though, here is a not uncharacteristic sample from someone named Jennifer Irwin:
A woman who gets a doctorate in education you suggest to drop the doctor?! You petty, pathetic, let’s be real misogynistic f—k! You shouldn’t be teaching other humans. We need more Jill Bidens and less bitter f—king Aholes like you in the world!
Not all my hate email was this obscene, though I couldn’t help notice that my female antagonists went in for such coarse language more than did the men who wrote chiefly to insult me. “You’re A Prick” was the subject line from one Tricia Maher-Miller. “F—k you” is the entire message from a Jamie Nestor, to whose email I responded by writing “Gesundheit!”
Most of the insults claimed I was envious—the phrase “degree-envy” came up more than once—of Jill Biden’s academic attainments, that I was unfit to teach, that I was ancient and out of it (the phrase “old fart” came up a time or two), and in general a disgrace to the human race. While I received no death threats, quite a few of my hate-mailers spoke of their longing for me soon to depart the planet (“Wishing you the best of health in the last 1% of your underwhelming life”).
A number of people wrote to complain of my referring to Mrs. Biden as “kiddo.” This I did in my first sentence: “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think a not unimportant matter.” Anyone not blinded by anger would recognize that this sentence was built on the notion of increased intimacy of address. But my hate-mailers, not close readers, thought the phrase was condescending and thereby sexist. One sent me an email consisting of the word “kiddo” repeated perhaps a hundred times. There is of course nothing sexist or even sex-related about the word “kiddo,” since one uses it freely to address both men and women. Yet to the TV host Keith Olbermann on Twitter, “As the use of ‘kiddo’ underscores, misogyny and authoritarianism are baked in @wsj; this 83-year old turd polisher’s hatred goes back to a homophobic piece in 1970; and his degree envy is just pathetic.” But Keith, as the 46th president of the United States might say, “look, here’s the deal, I myself use the word ‘kiddo’ all the time”—which he does, or at least did, until this brouhaha. Ah, me, another rainy day in the Old Republic of Letters.
I also received more than a few psychoanalyses explaining to me the reasons behind my wretched views (not enough mother love, don’t you know). In this connection, my genitals were sometimes mentioned, the presumption being that their inadequacy would explain my harsh and hateful views. Many lectured me on the true meaning of the word “doctor” and its history, lectures usually nicely larded with insults. One such closed: “While you are free to denigrate non-medical doctoral degrees to your malignant heart’s content, you will NOT stop the colleges and universities of the world from conferring doctoral degrees of all types. You are just another self-hating kvetch.” Only one piece of hate mail featured anti-Semitism. I’d not before now been called, as I was by this charming correspondent, a man signing himself Neil Thompson, a “kike c—t.”
Another batch featured accounts by women, or in some cases stories about women told by their husbands, of their own arduous acquisition of advanced degrees. Many of these letters, though their authors seemed unaware of it, were really little more than accounts of their own virtue—virtue, let there be no question about it, impossible that a lowlife like me could ever hope to attain. They were written only partly to insult me, but in greater part to exhibit their own self-congratulation. These were examples of the virtucrat in action. The word “virtucrat,” one of my few contributions to the English language, is “a man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous into the bargain.”
I have, at the time of writing, had only three phone calls from angry strangers. The first arrived at 1:25 a.m. the day of publication of my op-ed. A man’s voice wakened me to announce, “You put me through your article. In return I’m putting you through this phone call,” whereupon the caller hung up. The second, also from a man, arrived at midday and was short and snappy, if not happy: “You Joseph Epstein.” “Yes.” “You dick.” Another hang-upper. The third came from a woman who went on a bit longer, calling me “an old geezer” who she hoped would soon be dead. She, too, ended the call without awaiting an answer. Not much interested in dialogue, my telephone interlocutors.
Yeats’s famous lines, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity” have proved only half true in my case. Alongside all this egregious email, I have also received a good deal from people approving my WSJ op-ed and saying generous things about the pleasure my writing generally has given them over the years. Included among them was a cheering word from a much admired historian of America, whose name I shall not mention lest he be tainted by my current infamy, remarking on my sense of humor and the sad fact that “there is no room left for humor in our current culture.”
Above all, I am pleased, and more than a little proud, of the Wall Street Journal coming to my defense in the form of Paul Gigot, the editor in charge of the paper’s opinion pages, writing an op-ed of his own defending my column in his paper and cogently suggesting reasons for the tumult it has caused: “The Biden media team elevated Mr. Epstein’s work in what was clearly a political strategy.” Senator Tom Cotton sent me an email about my op-ed, contrasting the WSJ’s courageous stand in my defense to the cowardice of the editors of the New York Times in connection with the piece he published there in the summer of 2020 in which he argued for sending in troops to support police where riots had broken out in American cities. Its publication caused the paper to fire its editorial-page editor for allowing it to run.
All the boxes against me, then, have been ticked: sexist, check; racist, check; homophobe, check; snob, check; elitist, check; out-of-it old fart, check. But above all and everywhere, I was most clearly a misogynist, a person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against women. I hope word of this doesn’t leak out to my wife of nearly 45 years or to my two elegant and accomplished grown-up granddaughters. Nor to all the women who sat in my classes at Northwestern over the years, four of whom wrote to me in my defense, one of whom noted, “I have continued to defend you in the comments and always will. The piece was hilarious, and no one at NU ever went to bat for me like you did.”
On the charge of misogyny, I now have direct experience of the fact that, under the current malevolent and humorless reign of political correctness, anything mildly critical written or said about any woman, African American, homosexual, or any other minority group (excluding Jews and Asians) will automatically earn one of those condemnatory labels that have replaced thought for so many in our day. Perhaps nowhere is this more prevalent than in our universities and media. I gently chide Jill Biden on the pretentiousness of her calling herself doctor, and Mika Brzesinski, on her television show, calls me “petty, elitist, and misogynist”—the “trifecta,” as her partner Joe Scarborough added.
My criticism of the use of the doctor title for anyone who is not in the healing trades reminded me that the Johnsonian scholar Donald J. Greene was opposed to people referring to Samuel Johnson as Dr. Johnson, because the honorary doctorate from Oxford had been bestowed upon him only after Johnson had produced his Dictionary, and Greene felt it tended to portray the man as pompous and grumpy in a way he never was. I stand by my view that today to call oneself “doctor” if one is not involved in physical or mental healing is generally a comic affectation, and I see nothing in the least sexist in saying so.
As for Jill Biden’s Ed.D., many people who acquire that degree chiefly turn out to be school superintendents. As Nicholas Clairmont wrote at Tablet: “An Ed.D. degree is 90 or so years old, as a concept, and it is not really comparable to a Ph.D. It’s not a welding certificate, but it is perhaps closer to welding than comparative literature. It’s an occupational license, the possession of which allows teachers and education administrators to become about a third better paid. It is a professional training certification, not a scholarly project committed to enlarging the scope of human knowledge.” Clairmont adds that “Jill Biden is not a Ph.D. stealing the valor of physicians. She is a technical school student stealing the valor of Ph.Ds.”
Nor do education departments represent the intellectual heights at any university. In 1997, my alma mater, the University of Chicago, literally disbanded its Department of Education, founded in 1895 by John Dewey, due to the diminution in its quality. What is usually taught in these departments is generally a hodgepodge of sociology, political science, conventional wisdom, and whatever else happens to be at hand. (I have not read Jill Biden’s dissertation, but for a blistering attack on its quality, see Kyle Smith’s “Jill Biden’s Garbage Dissertation, Explained,” National Review, December 17, 2020.) When I was in school, I took a single education course, thinking that a teaching certificate might come in handy if my desire to become a writer didn’t turn out. Wolfgang Pauli, the physicist, is supposed to have said in response to a student’s far-off answer to a question he posed, “That’s not even wrong.” The education course I took was not even dull. I have read articles in which people have argued that a good part of the problem with much public schooling today is owing to the offerings in contemporary education departments. In any case, an Ed.D. is far from an unambiguous accomplishment and may not be a degree one wishes to flaunt.
Some of my hate-mailers have asked why I haven’t written to attack the right-wing firebrand Sebastian Gorka, who also refers to himself as “Doctor.” I didn’t because he is not sufficiently prominent for me to do so, though let me say here that I think his referring to himself as Dr. Gorka a ludicrous bit of pretentiousness and pomposity. Others have asked why I haven’t attacked Condoleezza Rice or Henry Kissinger for their self-doctoring. Rice, best I know, does not call herself doctor; she has too much serious learning and good sense to stoop to need to do so. Henry Kissinger, I’m told, only took to wishing to be referred to as doctor when he went into public life to avoid the deadly title of Professor. When I am referred to as Professor, as I occasionally still am, I usually remark that I much prefer to be addressed as Mister, Professor being what you call the man who plays piano in the bordello. (“Hit it, Professor!”)
Something there is heavily Teutonic about the nonmedical use of “Dr.” before one’s name. All this conferring of doctor upon oneself by academics is said to have had its origin in Germany. An old joke has a ship filled with German Jews making port at Haifa, and before the ship unloads, someone from the deck calls out “Doktor,” at which point every passenger rushes to the railing in response, and the ship sinks.
In America, the academic affectation of calling oneself Dr. is more than a little motivated by the hope of garnering some of the prestige of physicians. I had an acquaintance, a Ph.D. in anthropology, who always phoned in his dinner reservation under the name Dr. Newman, hoping he would get a better table and perhaps greater respect through the title. Whoopi Goldberg, on television, cited Jill Biden as “an amazing doctor” and thought she would make a fine surgeon general. I have had people write to tell me that until my op-ed they thought Jill Biden a physician. Endless are the sad jokes about academics booking flights under the title of Dr. and then being called upon for their help when another passenger has a heart attack. Finally, there is something snobbish, un-American even, like the ennobling prefix von, about someone not in medicine referring to him- or herself with an honorific doctor.
COULD ALL the hubbub occasioned by my op-ed really have been about anything so minor as calling out Jill Biden on flaunting her degree or referring to her jokingly as kiddo? Or was something else going on? The true theme of my op-ed, after all, is the sad state, one might almost say the decay, of the contemporary university in America. This devolution of higher education (always excepting science and engineering training) has been underway for a good while.
In 2002, I published a book on the subject of snobbery, in which I noted that where one or one’s children went to college had become perhaps the prime source of contemporary snobbery in America. The title of the book’s chapter on the subject is “A Son at Tufts, a Daughter at Taffeta.” Colleges, like designer clothes, I argued, had become less about the quality of their education than about their branding, with Harvard the Armani, Yale the Christian Dior, and Princeton the Ferragamo of higher education; and, like these clothes, vastly overpriced and not all that elegant, or, in the case of our putative great universities, all that educative. The leaching since 2002 of today’s politics into much of the social science and humanities curricula, along with the new humorless and nervous-making stringencies brought on by political correctness, has made matters worse.
Might it be that many of the people who wrote such vile things to me, or pronounced upon my op-ed on social media or in actual media, were in fact offended by my pointing up the degradation of the contemporary university? Might it be that my even partially describing this degradation of higher education, and the subsequent devaluation of its degrees, ordinary and honorary, on which they feel that their prestige depends offended them more than a thousand kiddos? By mocking the state of the university, did they feel I was attacking the foundation on which their own lives have been built? Might R.R. Reno, writing about my op-ed in First Things, be on target when he writes: “That Epstein should note the obvious—that credentials are the cheap cellophane in which elites wrap themselves when they lack real achievements and nobility of soul that win respect—galls them.”
This would suggest that my 800 words constituted a rhetorical grenade thrown in the class war, where the status conferred by educational degrees, like those of nobility in an earlier day, is crucial to those who went to great expense of time and money to attain them. All this hatred directed at me touched a nerve in their otherwise fairly empty lives because my words hit them where they live: in their status. “I don’t believe the butt of Epstein’s piece was women,” Nicholas Clairmont writes, “but rather credentialism—which is the hornet’s nest one cannot kick today. Oh boy, you do not want to piss off the people whose sense of self hangs in a frame on their wall.”
Sad when the supposedly highly educated are among the crudest, most fragile, and easily unhinged people in the country. But I guess that’s the way it is, kiddo.
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