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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Networking

Hi again, Horowitz fans!  This fierce and shallow blog is sorry it’s taken so long (in blog days) to get back to David’s one-short-step-from-rabid attack on me last week, but I perversely decided to finish rewriting three chapters of Liberal Arts instead, and just last night I sent it off to my editor.  Finally!  There is much rejoicing in this house.  But, David, it’s not like I haven’t been thinking about you, dear– in fact, if you like, you can consider Liberal Arts a 90,000-word reply directed to you, and to you alone.

All right, then.  If you’re ready, so am I.  Welcome to the Renard News Channel, David Horowitz!  Let’s see what you have to say for yourself today.

Professor Michael Berube is one of many fierce and shallow critics of our new database—DiscoverTheNetwork, which is a comprehensive guide to the political left. In a recent attack on our site (on March 2) he reveals once again the intellectual laziness of the left when it comes to engaging opponents in, well, intellectual argument. On the other hand, tenured radicals like Berube have lifetime jobs and captive audiences, so what is their incentive not to be lazy?

That’s kind of mean, David, and entre nous, mean people are one of my biggest turn-offs.  Really, you have to get over your bitterness and resentment of academe.  It’s not healthy!  People who have their very own, right-wing-foundation-subsidized media empires, base salaries over $300,000, and $5000 speaking fees really shouldn’t complain so much about the working conditions of teachers.  Besides, everyone knows I am not lazy.  And you, especially, should know better: after all, I’ve now read more of your recent work than anyone who doesn’t work for you.  Here I am doing all the hard work of picking apart your latest, most appalling attempt to smear liberals and progressives, and you call me “mindless.” Where is the gratitude?  Where is the love? 

Seriously, David, it’s not a pretty sight to see your essay chug along, and to watch the wheels come off one by one.  First there’s the bizarre and quite foolish claim that “Berube and other leftists guffawed over the presence of Barbra Streisand and Katie Couric in the base, as though no one could take these women seriously (imagine if conservatives had tried that).” David, my man, you have to remember that the Internets are an amazing thing: you’re not just talking to your captive audience over there at FrontPage.  Your claim that I objected to the presence of Couric and Streisand in your database on the grounds that “no one could take these women seriously” can also be read by sane people on other sites, like this one; likewise, that high-pitched, pre-adolescent whine, “imagine if conservatives had tried that,” can be heard around the world.  You need to get a grip!  People are watching!

Then there’s the line, “Since Berube and his friends can’t be bothered to supply an argument, I will do it for them.” David, David.  How soon we forget! It was only a month ago that this humble and almost infinitely patient blog pointed out that you’d opened your defense of the “network” by insisting that your critics had “seized on a quirk in the format, an entirely innocent feature of the site” and that “the mere listing of these figures in the database was not intended to suggest that there are organizational links or common agendas or coinciding agendas between these individuals.” Now, go and read the rest of my post from February 25– I’ll wait right here– and you’ll find that there is indeed an argument there.  I’ll even compose another version of it here, in response to the most incendiary charge you’ve lobbed my way:

radicals like Berube can’t be bothered to actually read or respond rationally to anything that ruffles their progressive feathers, let alone be concerned about the fact that their entire political focus since 9/11 has been in getting our terrorist enemies off the hook. (Doubters can consult the archives of The Nation, The Progressive and any number of leftwing sites on the web to confirm the negative posture of progressives towards the war on terror and their sympathetic back-bending for terrorists.) Naturally, not a single leftwing journal or blogger, for that matter, so much as noticed Unholy Alliance, or addressed its arguments, despite the fact that there is no better known critic of the left than myself and Unholy Alliance makes the same claims that now incite them. It is only because I have now constructed a website with pictures reflecting the same conclusions that they have been roused from their torpors.

At this point, it looks like things are getting really ugly, so we’ll turn away from David for a while and address ourselves to our readers and viewers at home.

Two things strike me about this paragraph.  First, as I’ve noted before, this hermeneutically conservative blog does not psychoanalyze people at great distances; we believe that only Charles Krauthammer has that power.  But all the same, I’ve got to say that the final two sentences of this passage are a little . . . hmm, grandiose?  Readers, I turn this one over to you: what’s with this complaint that we’re not paying enough attention to the best-known critic of the left?

Second, if there are any lawyers reading this back-bending blog, can you tell me more about the claim that my “entire political focus since 9/11 has been in getting our terrorist enemies off the hook”?  Exactly how close is this to libel?  I’m just curious.

Now, let’s get serious here, once more with feeling. “Discover the Network” is an attempt to delegitimate and slander everyone to the left of Joe Lieberman, an attempt to construe all criticism of the Bush Administration– even that of George Clooney– as tantamount to treason.  David himself says as much:  “It should be obvious that even the otherwise innocent Barbra Streisand shares negative views of the Bush Administration and its mission of liberating Iraq with anti-American jihadists like the aforementioned [Abu Musab] Zarqawi, even though we are sure that she deplores some of his methods.” By that standard, anyone with negative views of the Bush administration or the war in Iraq is an ally of Zarqawi.  This mode of argumentation– construing liberal dissenters as supporters of terrorists– is not merely unreasonable; it is, I submit, altogether inappropriate for people living in republics and democracies.

It’s one thing to associate Brian Becker, Ramsey Clark, or Lynne Stewart with political Islamists; these people truly have gone around the bend, and are making what amounts to a red-brown alliance between the far far left and the far far right of Islamism.  It’s quite another thing– an indefensible thing, at least by the standards of decent people– to suggest, as this database does, that there is a “network” linking people like Katie Couric to Mohammed Atta, Zacarias Moussaoui to Roger Ebert.  So this “network” deliberately and systematically confuses the distinction between people who criticize Lynne Stewart and Ramsey Clark and people who support them, and this fact alone renders the very idea of a “network” incoherent. 

To associate me (or Roger Ebert or Ted Kennedy or Ruth Bader Ginsburg) with such fringe far-leftists is to partake of precisely the same “logic” as that of the fringe far-left itself:  for Becker and Clark, the enemy of their enemy is their friend, and they welcome figures like Milosevic or al-Sadr, because anyone who opposes the U.S. must be all right with them.  In so doing, they forfeit their moral authority to oppose totalitarianism, torture, and terrorism throughout the world.  (And I invite everyone on the Right to join me in opposing all three!  Anyone?) Likewise, in “Discover the Network,” anyone who does not support George Bush and the war in Iraq is part of a “network” that extends to al-Qaeda.  It’s the same fundamentalist logic, and it entails the same forfeiture of moral authority.

Not that David Horowitz had much moral authority to begin with.  For while he’s going on about how Barack Obama is linked to Osama bin Laden, and “leftist professors like Michael Berube” are “linked by one or two degrees of separation to long-standing radicals like Lynne Stewart– and thus no more than three degrees– to terrorists like Omar Abdul Rachman and his Islamic Group,” David ignores (or is simply ignorant of) the fact that progressives like me have been absolutely consistent in condemning human rights abuses on both the right and the left, whether committed by Pinochet or Milosevic, contras or Castro.  Meanwhile, David hasn’t exactly been working with the same moral scale.  When it comes to dictatorships, David has what we might call, with apologies to Jeane Kirkpatrick, double standards.  As Horowitz wrote in 1998:

Looking back now, we can see that Pinochet was good for Chile.

Pinochet’s dictatorship does not compromise any conservative expectations in the way that Castro’s dictatorship compromises the visions of the left.

Whew!  Talk about three degrees of separation.  And now this guy, Friend of Augusto, is calling on people like Tom Brokaw to repudiate their “network” connections to Fidel Castro?

However, just as the last wheel spins off Horowitz’s shabby vehicle, I find one small grain of truth in his critique of me.  David writes:

What people like Berube don’t seem to understand is that politics is, in the end, a serious business.  When Berube and his friends opposed America’s Cold War with the Communist enemy, the consequences of their actions were dire indeed. In Cambodia and South Vietnam, Berube and his fellow leftists– including John Kerry and Ted Kennedy– are accountable for making it possible for the Communists to slaughter two-and-a-half million innocent people after U.S. aid was cut at their insistence.

He’s got me there, folks.  Not many people know this, but when I was ten years old, I took some time away from playing hockey at the New York Rangers’ summer camp in New Hyde Park, Long Island in order to call for a “bloodbath in the rice paddies” of Southeast Asia.  It was a youthful indiscretion, and I am sorry for it.

Actually, as I wrote to David three years ago, the antiwar left has been pretty clearly vindicated on the subject of Vietnam:  that war was not, after all, critical to U.S. national security or to the fate of the free world.  We could have walked away in 1954 or 1964 instead of 1975, and the Berlin Wall would still have come down in 1989, the Soviet Union would still have collapsed in 1991.  And there would be 58,000 more Americans– and roughly a million more Vietnamese– around to watch it happen.

There were, of course, millions upon millions of patriotic Americans who opposed Soviet Communism but did not believe that the Vietnam War was just or necessary.  Horowitz has no right to smear them, either.  For as long as he maintains his own unholy alliances, David Horowitz simply has no moral authority to speak of the slaughter of innocents– in Vietnam, in Cambodia, in Chile, in Guatemala, in South Africa, anywhere.  And his equation of domestic dissent with treason is, quite literally, un-American. That’s the case that liberals, progressives, and leftists need to make about this so-called “network.”

Posted by Michael on 03/22 at 02:19 PM
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Friday, March 18, 2005

The Beinart Effect

This post can also be found at the spiffy new American Street.  Check out their redesigned site and their fine, fine team of contributors.

In my characteristically belated, catching-up kind of way, I’ve finally decided what I think of that New York Times roundtable on liberalism featuring Peter Beinart, Michael Tomasky, and Katrina vanden Heuvel.  Yes, I know– I’ll be weighing in on the significance of the French Revolution next (though personally, I think it’s too soon to tell on that one).  Most of what I’ve read so far, among liberals-progressives-lefties, takes Beinart to task for repeating one of the ripest items in the RNC bag of chestnuts: “It’s remarkable to me how many people still mention the fact that [the anti-abortion Pennsylvania governor] Bob Casey was denied the right to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention.” Yeah, well, it’s really remarkable to me too, since, as everyone and her brother has pointed out, Casey was actually denied a speaking slot because he hadn’t endorsed the damn Clinton/Gore ticket.  Listen.  Anyone who repeats this canard again is a GOP android.  You don’t have to go to all the trouble of giving them the Voigt-Kampff empathy test from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?– just ask them if the Democrats are so stridently pro-abortion that they wouldn’t even let poor Bob Casey speak at the 1992 convention.  If they say yes, you may feel free to “retire” them.

And then there’s Beinart’s last-gasp defense of the thing that has been killing Democrats for the past three years, the item on which Kerry was so spectacularly, extravagantly incoherent.  Iraq.  Beinart is no longer pro-war, but:

Let me say a couple of things as someone who did support the war in Iraq. There is no question that the war is going very, very badly. But I think two things remain even if we do end up deciding that Iraq was a terrible disaster. The first is that there is an important connection between dictatorship and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.  Secular dictators like Saddam Hussein or secular autocrats like Hosni Mubarak create a political dynamic in which liberalism gets weakened and weakened. And the only alternative becomes Islamic fundamentalism.

I happen to think he’s right that there is such a connection, and that its roots go all the way back to the CIA’s Original Sin of overthrowing Mossadeq in Iran and installing the Shah in 1953.  (Though I don’t mean this to suggest that I think we’re to blame for everything that’s happened in the region since; nor do I think that we “created” Islamism by means of our foreign policy.  I think Islamists did that pretty much on their own.) I also think that liberals and leftists should be at one in opposing dictatorships regardless of whether they involve any Islamic fundamentalism.  But this is not, not, not a justification for pre-emptive invasion and war.  Saying– or even implying– that the connection between dictatorship and Islamic fundamentalism is a legitimate reason for war in Iraq is tantamount to signing on for the entire century-long PNAC package of wars in the Middle East, as one dictatorship after another is toppled in Syria, Iran, Jordan, and then we have to decide just how we’re going to tell our secular autocratic friends in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that we’re coming to clear them out.

But, folks, I know you know all this already. So I’m going to focus not on Beinart himself but on the Beinart Effect.  His clarion call in last December’s essay, “A Fighting Faith”– as Mark Schmitt put it last month, “apparently soon to be a major motion picture perhaps starring John Cusack as the late Senator Henry M. Jackson”– for Democrats to repudiate Michael Moore and MoveOn.org contained a tiny but crucial grain of truth:  Michael Moore does indeed go around saying that terrorism is a phantom menace.  “For Moore,” Beinart wrote, “terrorism is an opiate whipped up by corporate bosses. In Dude, Where’s My Country?, he says it plainly: ‘There is no terrorist threat.’ And he wonders, ‘Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us our lives are in danger?’” The closing minutes of Fahrenheit 9/11 strike a similar note, as well.

Now, it’s one thing to ridicule the color-coded terror alerts and Tom Ridge’s special sales on duct tape.  That ridicule is entirely appropriate, especially when you take into account the very curious timing of those orange alerts.  It’s quite another thing to say, as Ed Herman did in December 2001, “the idea that the Taliban is a fascist and expansionist threat, and that Islamic fundamentalism more broadly speaking is the same, doesn’t hold water.” Remarks like these suggest that one wing of the American left just doesn’t take Islamic fundamentalism or al-Qaeda very seriously, and they (that is, the remarks and the people who’ve made them) have now become the source of both Paul Berman’s and Peter Beinart’s analogies between what they see as the naive, trusting fools who were soft on Communism in 1947 and the naive, trusting fools who are soft on Islamism today.  (My 2003 review of Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, which broaches this issue at greater length than I’ll impose on you in this post, is now available online here.) [UPDATE:  Nope, not anymore.  They yanked it!  Very well, here’s a .pdf version.]

The problem, then, is that this determined underestimation of political Islam and groups like al-Qaeda produces a compensatory overestimation of political Islam and groups like al-Qaeda.  Josh Marshall– no shrinking violet he, and no lefter-than-thou guy either– called Berman on this phenomenon almost two years ago in his review of the book, suggesting that Terror and Liberalism had given in to what he called “The Orwell Temptation,” the tendency to “take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are.” The Beinart Effect is a closely related phenomenon; it is not, however, a question of how the “soft” left has affected Beinart so much as a question of how Beinart’s insistence on “a fighting faith” has affected other liberals. 

And here, this leather-clad and easily-caricatured blog is looking at you, Michael Tomasky.  Don’t get me wrong– I love you like a brother or maybe a cousin; I didn’t much care for your argument, ten years ago, that the academic left bore some responsibility for the Gingrich Revolution (you remember that line about how we “sit around debating the canon at a handful of elite universities and arguing over Fish’s and Jameson’s influence on the academy”), but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of your work since, and I cite you all the time, really I do.  But you’ve got to stop saying things like this (from that Times roundtable):

First, terrorism is a threat. It threatened our shores more directly than the Soviet Union ever did. And it must be the focus of a foreign policy.

The “threatened our shores more directly than the Soviet Union” line is just asking to be kicked, and (as I’m sure you’re aware), the sharp-toed Tom Tomorrow delivered precisely that kick two weeks ago.  Quite apart of whether it’s accurate (and it’s not), it plays right into Beinart’s thesis in “A Fighting Faith,” and promises to fight even harder to combat the most serious threat we have ever faced, ever.

Likewise, you really shouldn’t have announced your “principled realism” in The American Prospect by way of that banner headline, “Between Chomsky and Cheney.” Look, I know what this really means: it means Chomsky supports no international interventions led by the U.S. or its allies, military or otherwise, and Cheney supports international intervention 24/7, preferably unilateral, military and otherwise, whereas principled realists support some international interventions (Liberia and Darfur as well as Afghanistan, say), maybe led by the U.S., maybe not, and preferably (though not dogmatically) not military.  And I realize that you can’t fit all that on a magazine cover.  But if you really split the difference between Chomsky and Cheney, you wind up with Scoop Jackson or Joe Lieberman, and trust me, you don’t want that.

Besides, as Rick Perlstein pointed out to me a few days ago, there’s something very, very troubling about the whole Beinart analogy between anti-Islamism and anti-Communism, and “principled realists” ought to be much more wary of it than they are.  Yes, the Americans for Democratic Action met at the Willard Hotel in 1947.  Yes, they announced their opposition to Communism “because the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere” and America should support “democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over.” And yes, they had a better sense of totalitarianism than did their critics on the left at the time.  But it doesn’t seem, in retrospect, that this managed to inoculate American liberals and progressives against McCarthyism over the course of the ensuing decade. A fat lot of good it did, actually.  When the shock troops of the Right broke down your door fifty-odd years ago, searching for spies and softies and fellow travelers and people who’d voted for Norman Thomas in 1932 and people who knew someone who’d just denounced the Taft-Hartley Act, and when you insisted, as you were being led away, that you were in fact an anti-Communist, you remember what the reply was: they didn’t care what kind of Communist you were.

So yes, let’s have a fighting liberalism:  let us oppose violent, fundamentalist, patriarchal, homophobic, and theocratic forces abroad, just as we do at home.  But let’s not give in to the Orwell Temptation, or its corollary, the Beinart Effect.  And let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that adopting a “fighting liberalism” will keep the wolves of the Right at bay.

Posted by Michael on 03/18 at 10:33 AM
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Thursday, March 17, 2005

If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Dave

Damn that twisted genius Billmon and his infernal Whiskey Bar!  (And a demonic hat tip to Rox for calling it to my attention.) His brilliant analysis of the Contemporary Cultural Revolution is not only scholarly and erudite, but illustrated.  This humble blog gasps in awe.

And it also begs for your patience.  I was going to do the Beinart Effect thing today, and return to Horowitz’s Monday-morning Bérubé extravaganza tomorrow, but I wasted the entire day yesterday doing real work (that is, rewriting the intro to the book-- yes, that book) and I’ve got all kinds of scutwork and assorted catchup today.  So for now, the Renard News Channel simply directs you to the incomparable Billmon.  And (for those of you who might be amused by such a thing) to my very first cover-art caricature, which surely gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “101st Fighting Keyboarders.” (Should I lose the hat?  I think it clashes with the rest of the ensemble.  And yeah, there’s a profile there too.  Something about blogging.)

In the meantime, here’s our latest reader contest:  Finish The Couplet!  But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Dave. . . .

Posted by Michael on 03/17 at 02:08 PM
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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Reggie Dwight and Davy Jones

A couple-three years ago I bought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road from Amazon.  I’m not sure why I did it– it was right around the time I purchased CD copies of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Station to Station, and I think I must have said, “oh, what the hell.” I mean, I’d never owned the record on vinyl, and I never cared much for Mr. John thirty years ago.  But I’d also just seen Cameron Crowe’s very average Almost Famous, which brought the very average tune “Tiny Dancer” back into circulation, so I went rooting around Elton’s early albums, looking for “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” a song (from 1972’s Honky Chateau) I always considered better than decent.  (I’m talking about the music, of course, not those hackneyed lyrics– remember, we drummers couldn’t care less about the lyrics.)

Well, over the short term, that purchase was a terrible mistake.  For weeks afterward, folks, I was presented with Amazon e-mails telling me that the people who’d purchased Goodbye Yellow Brick Road had also purchased the whole Parade of Lite Horribles, from Rod Stewart to Billy Joel to Phil Collins to Michael Bolton Himself.  Panicking, I quickly ordered all of Brian Eno’s ambient albums as well as some Soul Coughing to throw Amazon off the scent.  (Actually that’s not true– I’d owned Eno before that, and I listen to those ambient CDs all the time when I’m working, particularly Ambient 4/ On Land.  Highly recommended for all ages!) But over the longer term, as I actually began to listen to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for the first time, I began to think all manner of things about Elton John.

First, that he’d already begun jumping the shark in 1973.  That much seems obvious in retrospect, now that he’s joined forces with the Disney Stable of Schlockmeisters and has foisted hideous soundtracks for El Dorado and The Lion King on our innocent, unsuspecting children (just try to listen to “Someday Out of the Blue” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Go ahead.  I dare you).  But those of us who listened to the radio thirty-odd years ago will remember that Elton John still had all kinds of rock credibility in 1973, getting massive airplay not only from the top-40 WABC-AM in New York but also from the coolest “progressive” rock in the metro area, WNEW-FM.  After GYBR, it gets pretty rancid pretty fast: Caribou (“Bitch is Back,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”), Captain Fantastic (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Meal Ticket”), Rock of the Westies (all of which is cringe-inducing, but perhaps it is one of the small triumphs of political correctness that we are no longer subjected to Elton and Bernie asking, in “Island Girl,” “tell me what you wantin wid de white man’s world”).

But he hasn’t quite lost it yet on Yellow Brick Road, and that’s what’s so curious: it’s as if he loses it and gets it back here and there, song by song, verse by verse.  Take a minor song like “Grey Seal”: it opens with the kind of ridiculous tinkling piano arpeggios one associates with motivational corporate videos, then come five crashing chords, and you think that maybe the corporate video will actually turn out to be a Barry Manilow-scored extravaganza.  And yet the verses are surprisingly good, easily the equal of any of the catchy pop melodies he’d written to that point.  The choruses suck, and the bridge couldn’t be cheesier.  But still, forty-eight or fifty nice, hummable bars ain’t bad.  Likewise with entire songs: “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” does not suck, whereas the very next tune, “Sweet Painted Lady,” explores new realms of suckitude (and do I hear a trumpet and a harmonium in that “orchestral arrangement”?  aren’t there laws about this kind of thing?)

The same is true of the double album (hey kids, remember “double albums”?) as a whole: “Funeral for a Friend/ Love Lies Bleeding” has some great passages, “Bennie and the Jets” is unlistenable; the verses of “All the Girls Love Alice” actually rock (drummers: check out Nigel Olsson’s curious dotted eighths on the bass drum, which always sound like they come just a nanosecond too early in the bar, and give the song a nice stutter-step), whereas “Jamaica Jerk-Off” is an utter embarrassment.  And what I find most intriguing is the back-to-back pairing of “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)” and “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting.” They’re both neo-“rock” songs, and consciously so, the one trying to evoke the structure of feeling of 50s rock, the other sounding like a canny quotation of an early-70s kickass rock song about drinkin’ and fightin’ rather than the Real Thing (despite Davey Johnstone’s infectious opening riff, which really does sound like the Real Thing).  Elton had done the neo- thing before, most obviously in “Crocodile Rock,” which wasn’t too bad (attaching the Diamonds’ “Little Darling” pretty deftly onto a soft-power-chord chorus, and of course announcing its ersatz status in the title), but for some reason “Your Sister Can’t Twist” sounds like the work of the annoying guy who approaches the drama club and says, “hey, everyone, let’s do the History of Rock for the high school spring musical!  I’ll write all the songs in different ‘rock’ styles!  It’ll be great!” (See, under this heading, Billy Joel’s Innocent Man– oh, hell, see half of Billy Joel’s entire bloody oeuvre).  When I first heard it on this nice personal CD player here in my study, I broke out in the cold clammy sweats and thought, “oh my God, I know where this road leads– it leads straight to Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf!  Stop!  Stop it now!” Imagine my surprise when I read the 1995 liner notes by John Tobler, who says this was “possibly yet another song which influenced Jim Steinman.” Gaaaaaaah!  But to this day, I can’t quite say why it is that one of these neo- songs still works for me, and the other makes me break out in the cold clammy sweats.

OK, so now that all that’s on the table, here’s my thing about David Bowie and Elton John.  The former has vastly more credibility than the latter, and has for the past twenty-something years or so.  Sure, Bowie gets some grief for raiding everyone else’s glam this and velvet-underground that (in fact, some of this blog’s very own commenters have given Bowie grief for this, I believe), but please– he wouldn’t be the first man or woman in popular music who served as a kind of Universal Recipient of cultural devices forged elsewhere, and he certainly hasn’t devoted his senescence to working with the likes of Tim Rice.  And I should add that Ziggy Stardust is among my favorite albums (I simply skip over “It Ain’t Easy”) and Station to Station is among my favorite things that should have been EPs but were bloated into LPs that aren’t fooling anyone.  Right up there with the second and third efforts of Declan McManus, I think.  Nonetheless: at this distance, the similarities between these guys seem to be much more compelling than the divergence of their career paths since the early 1970s.

Both have an exceptional ear for melody: though you may be sick of hearing “Daniel” and “Your Song” by now, both are really quite crafty, and even though “Lady Stardust” and “Wild is the Wind” are of another order– glam-opera epics rather than quiet singer-songwriter fare– they’re all about their melodies, too.  Both guys emerged in the late 1960s and then went on insane, white-hot songwriting tears, putting out seventeen albums by 1973 (eight by Bowie, nine by Elton).  Both, of course, work under stage names, because their original names were too boring and straight.  And both were basically done within a few years of redrawing the pop map.

Oh, now here come the howls from the Bowie diehards: what about Lodger?  don’t you get the whole motif of Scary Monsters?  and his latest work is his most searching and innovative yet! Give it a rest, folks, this humble blog is having none of it.  We’ll go with you as far as Heroes (by which point Elton had released the turgid Blue Moves, signalling far and wide that he was permanently down for the count), but no further.  And don’t even mention the appalling Let’s Dance, an album that sounds like someone doing a Bowie Revue and whose title song is almost as undanceable as Orleans’ “Dance with Me” (by common acclaim– that is, Janet’s and mine– the least danceable song ever to appeal to “dancing” in its title).

Instead, rather than debate when exactly David Bowie stopped being important to the development of modern popular music– four months after Elton John or four years– let’s give both men credit where credit is due: they were flamboyant, prolific, talented songwriters and performers at a time when AM radio was completely up for grabs (you remember– Malo’s “Suavecito” one minute, Wayne Newton’s “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” the next, then “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, followed by “Candida” by Tony Orlando and Dawn) and FM emerging from the shadows. Although Elton could never have written the edgy “Panic in Detroit” and Bowie would never have written the dirge-like “Philadelphia Freedom,” they each helped, in their own way, to make the Western world a queerer and a better place to be.  For that, the Renard News Channel thanks them! 

Next on the Renard News Channel:  the deadly Beinart Effect, and how to counter it!

AND AN UPDATE in response to comments:  the next item in this series will be a disquisition on The Hitherto Unremarked Similarities between Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.  Readers are welcome to begin writing that one on their own.

Posted by Michael on 03/15 at 05:25 PM
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Monday, March 14, 2005

KC and me, round two

Well, dear readers, I have been rebuffed.  Despite going to all the trouble of making up ready-made replies for Professor KC Johnson, so that he could simply check a box in order to explain why he claimed that I wrote an essay “advising professors to treat conservative students as they would students with learning disabilities or who exhibited aberrant behavior,” I have instead been met with a reply whose evasiveness beggars description.  No one told me that hosting The Bérubé Factor was going to be such hard work!  It’s hard, hard work!

Professor Johnson spends most of his reply quoting a hostile review of one of my books, which seems appropriate enough, I suppose.  Then, in his final paragraph, he gets around to establishing himself as more judicious than I am:

In his blog piece, Bérubé argues that this passage did not represent a comparison of conservatives to students with disabilities. Hmm. I’m not sure that, even off the top of my head, much less in a piece published for the Chronicle, I would compare how I respond to students whose political viewpoints differ from mine to students who “genuinely have had some degree of Asperger’s syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms.”

But hmm right back atcha, KC.  You know, I’m not sure that, even off the top of my head, much less in a piece published for Midstream and reproduced with my consent by Campus Watch, I would so thoroughly mischaracterize someone else’s written work.

After all, two (or more!) can play that game.  So let’s say I go ahead from here and publish something in which I claim that . . . hmm . . . KC Johnson has written that faculty members who applaud E. L. Doctorow “require constant, vigorous oversight.” (And let’s note, for the record, that my mischaracterization of Johnson’s paragraph comes a good deal closer to the spirit of his essay than does his mischaracterization of my paragraph about disruptive students.) And then let’s say that KC Johnson himself complains about my misquotation.  Would I then reply that KC is excessively self-absorbed, as he charges in his reply, by way of citing a disparaging review of one of his books?  (As to whether KC actually is self-absorbed, that’s for others to say.) No, I wouldn’t do that, my friends.  This humble blog may be humble, but it does have some pride.  We don’t play that little wingnut game in which we put words in people’s mouths and then chastise them for taking exception to it!

Nor would I close my reply with anything like KC’s textbook non-apology apology:

I apologize if I misinterpreted Bérubé’s intent in making the comparison, and I express the best wishes to the conservative students who can be “gently but not patronizingly” treated in his courses.

Hmm again.  This sounds to me a little like “I said you’re an unethical teacher, and I apologize-- I’m sorry you’re an unethical teacher.” Remember, folks, KC wasn’t just misquoting me-- he was adducing my Chronicle essay as an instance of academe’s “almost comical hostility to perceived conservatives.” Well, I owe KC an apology in return, then.  I’m sorry I called him “thoughtful.” [OK, that’s a bit much.  See the update, below.] [Actually, as of the morning of March 15, it turns out that my revised assessment of KC was too generous.  Unstrike those stricken words, and see the second update.]

As for Mark Bauerlein’s boundary 2 review of The Employment of Englishboundary 2 graciously allowed me some space to reply to that review, though KC doesn’t say so.  My reply to Bauerlein opened by admitting that “Although Professor Bauerlein’s review stings in places, it seems to me to have identified the flaws in The Employment of English all too accurately.” But it also pointed out that Bauerlein’s criticisms were themselves not beyond criticism:

Bauerlein writes: “When [Bérubé] questions the theoretical status of cultural studies (86–87), he does so to ask how it should be taught to graduate students so as to make them better interviewees at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Annual Convention” (202). This is poor textual conduct, I think, for someone so invested in reliable standards of evidence. Here’s what I actually said on the pages Bauerlein cites:

If we conceive of cultural studies— and theory more generally— as something that is potentially as relevant to freshman writing as it is to graduate seminars, then, perhaps, we can begin to make productive use of the multiple theoretical paradigms currently operating in the profession without overspecializing or underpreparing those graduate students who do choose to seek the Ph.D. We can, in other words, escape the illogic of the current system that asks job candidates to be brilliant, original researchers up until they receive an MLA interview, and then to be all-purpose generalists who can teach writing, Shakespeare, and the History of the English Language once they arrive on campus. (Employment of English, 87)

This is not a point about how to make students better interviewees and marketing strategists, as Bauerlein implies; it is, rather, a point about providing Ph.D. candidates with ways of thinking about theory and cultural studies that will reduce the growing tension between the research and teaching missions of the profession— a tension that is particularly acute during job searches.

Then there follows a passage that seems kind of relevant to this very exchange right here:

Ah, but it is true that I quote myself too much, especially when I am convinced that I have been misquoted (how else to set the record straight?), just as it is true that I refer to myself too much, as in sentences like this. On this count, I’m afraid I have to agree with Bauerlein entirely. The Employment of English contains far too many references to its author— as many as Bauerlein enumerates and still more. Here too I was at first tempted to defend myself, particularly with regard to my habit of addressing my most trenchant critics directly. For when Bauerlein complains that “even when parleying political and intellectual positions on English, Bérubé selects his antagonists using a personal criterion” (205), I have to admit I have no idea what he means. I do not select my antagonists, they select themselves; and when they publish critiques of my positions, I sometimes publish responses to those critiques, whereas Bauerlein would simply dismiss them as “ridiculous” and “bizarre” (206). Now, one of the critiques to which I responded came from a long review essay on [my second book] Public Access— and not “a review of a volume coedited by Bérubé” (206), as Bauerlein writes. Replying to arguments mounted in review essays, I think, is one of the ordinary forms of intellectual and professional exchange, and it is vexing to be chastised in a review essay for having written a response to another review essay. Bauerlein’s characterization of my exchanges with my critics thus confronts me with a conundrum: By engaging with the ridiculous arguments of, inter alios, Joseph Aimone, Stanley Fish, Jim Neilson, and Gregory Meyerson, I am not defending my “logically justified beliefs” (200) but “using a personal criterion” (205) for debate. There is, it would seem, a strategic elision here between defending one’s beliefs and simply being too self-absorbed, just as there is a nasty performative contradiction entailed in trying to defend oneself from the charge of being too self-absorbed when part of the evidence for the charge is that one defends oneself too often.

Well, I could post the whole dang exchange in boundary 2 if anyone’s interested, but I can’t imagine anyone being that interested.  I think if I were a more economical writer I’d have simply said something like what Amardeep Singh said in his reply to KC’s Cliopatria post.

But hey, KC, old boy, one final thing before The Bérubé Factor sends you back to the green room.  I’m really sorry that I wrote in The Employment of English, with regard to my visit to the CUNY Faculty Senate in 1997 (they offered me $100 to speak, and I told them I’d do it gratis), that I wanted to meet people like Sandi Cooper.  (Bauerlein didn’t like my mentioning this visit either, for some reason.) But had I known then that six years later, Cooper would offend you (as you point out in today’s post, “Cooper, a professor at the College of Staten Island who at the time had never even met me, uttered the single best line of my tenure case, when she informed the faculty senate forum that my receiving tenure constituted the Chancellor of CUNY’s ‘slapping’ her in the ‘face’"), I would not have wanted to meet her.  And I’m glad to see you don’t take these things personally!

UPDATE:  I do have a somewhat nicer reply here, in the form of a comment indirectly mediated by the remarks of the always-thoughtful Timothy Burke, to which KC responded rather more generously.  OK, ça suffit.  Tomorrow on the Factor:  David Bowie and Elton John.  You have been warned.

UPPING THE UPDATE:  Nope, ça ne suffit pas.  KC has upped the ante, and I’ve called.  (KC has since shut off comments over there, but we’ll keep them open here at the Renard News Channel.)

Posted by Michael on 03/14 at 04:15 PM
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Renard News:  nous rapportons, vous décidez

Over the weekend I came across an essay posted on Campus Watch’s website.  You all remember Campus Watch: long before there was “Discover the Network,” there was Campus Watch’s “Solidarity with Apologists” page (the page has since been taken down, but you can learn about it here).  “Solidarity with Apologists” featured the names of over one hundred professors (myself included) who had written to protest Campus Watch’s targeting of individuals, programs, and entire universities they deemed insufficiently patriotic or pro-Israel.  But it didn’t have pictures and it didn’t have Katie Couric or Roger Ebert, so it just wasn’t as much fun as the Discover the Network.

The essay, “Confronting Anti-Israel Attitudes on Contemporary College Campuses,” wasn’t originally written for Campus Watch– it had appeared late last year in Midstream, a monthly Jewish review, and was picked up by “Campus Watch in the Media,” a kind of clipping service for CW fans.  But the concluding paragraphs of the essay leave no doubt that it fits quite well in the Campus Watch repertoire:

[S]tudents, whether working through groups such as Students for Academic Freedom or contributing to websites such as No Indoctrination or Campus Watch, can have enormous influence, by exposing in-class bias that otherwise never would see the light of day. Faculty members, in turn, need to support students in these efforts. Finally, academic administrators should add intellectual diversity– an especially needed element in Middle East Studies programs– to the panoply of diversity-related measures that they regularly support.

Faculty and administrators need to support students in these efforts, no question.  On some campuses, faculty and administrators should help students distribute red stars for the office doors of anti-American professors; on other campuses, they should institute intellectual diversity programs so that conservative students will feel more comfortable in class and have higher self-esteem.  And how can you help at home?  Why, with constant, vigorous oversight, particularly with regard to commencement speakers whose remarks about George Bush or Iraq suggest that they are contributing to anti-Israel attitudes on campus:

[T]his issue will require constant, vigorous oversight, as events at Hofstra University’s 2004 commencement suggested. The commencement speaker, author E. L. Doctorow, bitterly condemned the war in Iraq and effectively called President George Bush a liar, drawing vigorous boos from the crowd and many students. In a stark illustration, however, of the ideological gap between today’s professoriate and the undergraduates that they teach, most of the faculty gave Doctorow a standing ovation. As Alan Dershowitz cautioned, as long as many professors see Israel as a proxy for their opposition to U.S. foreign policy, faculty members like those who applauded Doctorow are likely to contribute to rather than resolve the problem of anti-Israel attitudes on contemporary college campuses.

By this point, I imagine, some of you are saying, “all right already with all the Horowitz Hackwork, Michael– get off the case, it’s been a month or more now, and really, everything that can possibly be said about the man and his organization has been said.” But this isn’t David Horowitz, folks.  It’s Robert David (KC) Johnson, professor of history at Brooklyn College, and one of the most outspoken and (sometimes) thoughtful conservatives in the business.  (He’s currently a visiting professor at Harvard.) And the reason his essay came to my attention is that it popped up in the course of a Technorati search.  Because somewhere in the middle of the essay, there’s a very strange passage that has nothing to do with Middle East Studies:

In most social sciences and humanities departments, registered Democrats overwhelmingly outnumber registered Republicans; in an extreme example, Duke’s History Department contains 32 Democrats and zero Republicans.

An almost comical hostility to perceived conservatives heightens the impact of this imbalance. To cite a few examples from the 2003-2004 academic year alone, the nation’s leading academic journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, published an essay by Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé advising professors to treat conservative students as they would students with learning disabilities or who exhibited aberrant behavior.

Some of you might remember that essay and the short-term shitstorm it provoked over in Wingnut Alley in late 2003, but you might not remember that I advised professors to treat conservative students as they would students with learning disabilities or who exhibited aberrant behavior.  And that’s because . . . amazing but true . . . I said no such thing!

But back in 2003 before I had a proper blog and my very own nightly one-hour show on the Renard News Channel, if I wanted to reply to mischief like this, I would have to write an actual e-mail to the author or to Midstream or to Campus Watch, explaining that my essay’s only reference to “disability” comes in the final paragraph:

Over twenty years I’ve had many conservatives in my classes.  I think I’ve even had a few Stalinists, too.  I’ve had many intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room; I’ve had versions of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, who knew the answers to every question ever asked; I’ve had my share of blurters with very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger’s Syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms.  To all such students– indeed, to all students, those with disabilities and those without– I try to apply the standard of disability law: I make reasonable accommodation for them.  The challenge, though, lies in making reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of “reasonableness” are significantly different from yours.  Few aspects of teaching are so difficult– and, I think, so rarely acknowledged by people who don’t teach for a living.

You know what, though?  That Old Media method of responding to unscrupulous critics sucked.  Now, however, I can simply utilize the famously self-correcting features of the blogosphere– noting, for instance, that Professor KC Johnson does his very own blogging at the widely-respected Cliopatria and the somewhat less widely-respected National Association of Scholars Online Forum– in order to call attention to the fact that Professor Johnson did something here that real professors, or at least honest ones, really shouldn’t do.

So welcome to The Bérubé Factor, KC!  Glad you could make it.  Here at the Renard News Channel, we know you’re a busy guy, so to save you time and trouble, we’ve prepared for you some possible answers to our first two questions:

Q.  Why did you try to claim that my Chronicle essay advised professors to treat conservative students as if they were people with disabilities?

__ Actually, Michael, sometimes I’m not a very careful reader.  I completely missed the bit about making reasonable accommodations for all students, and I didn’t realize that you weren’t “advising” anyone to do anything.  It won’t happen again– I’ll be sure to slow down and read every word in the future.

__ Listen, Michael, I’m sorry I tried to get away with this nonsense.  Please forgive me.  I’m really not always unethical– only when I’m writing for journals where I don’t expect to run into anyone who’ll call me on stuff like this.  It will happen again, but only when I need to tell a few stretchers in order to smear liberal academics.  Always business, never personal, you know!

__ Golly, Michael, I just don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote this.  I’d completely forgotten that you have (a) a widely-read blog, (b) a nationally-televised talk show on a fictional network, and (c) a well-known tendency to visit the offices of conservative academics, fly into violent frothing frenzies, and nail people’s heads to the floor.  Please don’t nail my head to the floor, Michael!  If you promise to keep my head one hundred percent nail-free, I’ll promise to use it more wisely in the future!

Q.  Thank you for your candor.  But still, Professor Johnson, how can we institute programs of constant, vigorous oversight to keep track of faculty members who applaud E. L. Doctorow?

__ That is an unfair question, Michael.  Applauding E. L. Doctorow is not the problem.  The problem is that E. L. Doctorow criticized George Bush and the war in Iraq.  This form of leftist indoctrination on college campuses must be stopped.

__ Michael, that is precisely the kind of slanted, perverse interpretation of my work that I’d expect from the Renard News Network.  My essay made it quite clear that applauding Doctorow is just a “gateway” phenomenon:  faculty members who applaud Doctorow, as I carefully pointed out, are associated– indeed, in my very next sentence, which makes the connection extremely logical– with professors who “see Israel as a proxy for their opposition to U.S. foreign policy,” and these professors are “likely to contribute to rather than resolve the problem of anti-Israel attitudes on contemporary college campuses.” Moreover, I explicitly said that we need to focus on “faculty members like those who applauded Doctorow.” The chain of inference is clear; you just need to follow the steps.

__ You’re kidding me, right, Michael?  We already have those programs. 

Reader/viewer poll: which answers do you think Professor Johnson will choose?  Vote as often as you like, or make up entirely new replies!

Posted by Michael on 03/14 at 08:25 AM
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