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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Suitable for any occasion

It appears that Chris Clarke’s latest masterpiece, the graphic-novel version of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, has been reposted on various Internets servers without any attribution or acknowledgment.  This is a travesty—and it should remind us all that with this so-called “net neutrality” and these kids today, unscrupulous cyberpirates can take an Internet that’s not even theirs and put it into a tube where it can clog up somebody else’s Internet that’s still waiting to be made into a graphic novel.  Or, as Chris himself points out, “there was a time when you could steal images from something and then add text to them that riffed on another guy’s hard work and put the result somewhere and people would respect your property.”

Well, I’m not going to take this lying down.  I’m going to do the only thing I know how to do:  announce the arrival of another new book!

A whole box full of Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities just arrived on my doorstep.  This book is not yet available in graphic-novel form, so if you want to find out what happens at the end, you’ll just have to go see for yourself.  I will, however, provide the table of contents here, so that you can get some general idea about which humans and humanities I talk about:

Part One: Physics

(This section is mostly about the Sokal Hoax and its aftermath.  There are smarter discussions of the hoax out there, sure, but mine is the only one in which you can find a sentence that ends with ten igneous rocks that rotate voluptuous velvet ocelots with friendly tomato juice—and a brief discussion of Dirac’s Large Numbers Hypothesis, at no extra charge.)

1.  The Sokal Hoax for Beginners
2.  The Return of Realism and the Future of Contingency
3.  Of Fine Clothes and Naked Emperors
4.  The Utility of the Arts and Humanities

Part Two: Positions

(This section is about various figures and fields in the humanities: Stanley Fish on the interpretation of interpretation, Martha Nussbaum on education and cosmopolitanism, American Studies in the Cold War and the present, and Thomas Frank’s take on cultural studies.  Mix and match!)

5.  There is Nothing Inside the Text; or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser
6.  Citizens of the World, Unite: Martha Nussbaum’s Plan for Cultivating Humanity
7.  American Studies without Exceptions
8.  Idolatries of the Marketplace: Thomas Frank, Cultural Studies, and the Voice of the People

Part Three: Professions

(This section consists of shorter essays on teaching, lecturing, and some distinctive features of Life on Campus.)

9.  Days of Future Past
10.  Teaching to the Six
11. Working for the U.: On the Rhetoric of “Affiliation”
12.  Dream a Little Dream
13.  Professing and Parenting
14.  Speaking of Speakers
15.  Universities Should Be Open for Business
16.  Analyze, Don’t Summarize
17.  The Top 10 Contradictory Things about Popular Culture
18.  The Elvis Costello Problem

Part Four: Politics

(From a review essay on Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country to a review essay on Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism and all the turmoil in between, this section consists of my essays on debates in and about the American left.)

19.  The Lefts before September 11
20.  Nation and Narration
21.  Can the Left Get Iraq Right?
22.  For a Better—and Broader—Antiwar Movement
23.  Fighting Liberals
24.  The Loyalties of American Studies

Part Five: Posts

(Essays drawn directly from this humble blog!  No fair hunting through the archives to find them here.)

25.  Azkaban Blogging
26.  Back in Les États-Unis
27.  Vacation Reading II
28.  Republican National Convention, Second Night
29.  More Plans for Democrats in Distress
30.  The Beinart Effect
31.  Theory Tuesday II
32.  Theory Tuesday III
33.  Was I Ever Wrong

Best of all, Rhetorical Occasions is endorsed by Krusty the Clown, who says, “I heartily endorse this event or product or collection of essays.”

Now, about that book cover.

It’s just asking for trouble, I know it.  I mean, it’s my great big fat looming head, which, however ghostly and gray-tinged, is still big and fat and looming.  I don’t know what to tell you, except that my initial suggestions for the cover (all of which had to do with “rhetoric” or “speaking” or “occasions” or “occupatio”) were so terrible that we eventually decided just to go with an author photo and leave it at that.  I didn’t realize, at first, that the photo would wind up being a big fat ghostly head, but I suppose it’s appropriate, since, as my family members have often remarked over the years, I do indeed have a big fat head.  (UNC Press threatened to make a bobblehead of me and label it “actual size,” and they wouldn’t have been far off, either.) But the question remains as to how many people will want to read a collection of my essays that has a great big looming ghostly me-face on the cover.  I can think of only two answers.

One is that if you buy thirty or forty copies of the book, line them up face out (literally!) on a bookshelf, and repeat the words “rhetorical occasions, rhetorical occasions, rhetorical occasions” over and over, you’ll find that you soon leave yourself utterly and travel in a trancelike state to pure objective reception of the outer world. Sounds silly and pretentiously spirituel, I know. But it worked for me.

The other is that these books are quite sturdy and provide excellent material for dart practice and pin-the-tail-on games.  The book paper, including its paper cover, meets the guidelines for permanence and durability set out by the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources and the International Darts Federation, so let fly! 

As for why I am publishing two books this fall, one close on the heels of the other: I thought we were clear on this, everyone.  This blog has made it clear time and time again that our goal is world domination by 2009, and let’s be realistic about this, all right?  There’s just no way to achieve world domination on that kind of schedule by publishing just one book at a time.

Actually, some of the essays go together quite well with What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? But then, I was tweaking the second section and rewriting much of the Sokal section (and writing the first essay entirely from scratch) in 2005 whenever I wasn’t writing Liberal Arts, so there’s no surprise there.  And just as I was finishing the book, there was some encouraging science news in the reality-based community, and then this blog found itself hosting a discussion of science-studies scholar Steve Fuller’s strange defense of Intelligent Design, to which I finally replied the day after I mailed off the manuscript of Rhetorical Occasions.  So it all makes sense somehow.

Except for the Kandinsky mural in the Student Union building.  That’s all Chris Clarke’s work, and I had nothing to do with it.

Posted by Michael on 09/20 at 10:23 AM
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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What’s graphic about the graphic arts?

I was going to shift gears today and blog about baseball, because it has become increasingly apparent that the major leagues are headed for a crisis of world-historical proportions, and they need my help now.

The crisis is this: the entire National League sucks.  With the exception of the Mets, who have finally, finally ended the fifteen-year long national nightmare that was the Atlanta Braves’ domination of the National League East, the National League does not have a single team worthy of playing in the postseason.  And don’t try to tell me that the amazing Padres have blistered the league by winning 23 of 44 since August 1 (true!), or that the surprising and almost-.500 Marlins are a formidable 40-35 at home (also true!), or that the redoubtable Cardinals would be kind of good if they had some pitchers (maybe true!), or that the sparkling Dodgers managed to squeak by the amazing Padres last night. Give it up already.  None of those teams should be allowed in a playoff.  Yeah, we understand that the National League has been flirting for some time with ways of sneaking a 79-83 team into the big dance.  But that’s precisely why this madness has to stop.  Now.

Meanwhile, in the American League, the defending-champion and always-entertaining White Sox and their charmingly non compos mentis manager are going to be squeezed out of the fun by a lethal combination of hungry young Twins and Tigers, late-blooming A’s (I keep asking Oaktown Girl this every year, but when is someone going to inform that club that the season begins in April, not August?), and juggernaut Steinbrenners.  It’s just not right.

So I was going to propose the following solution: at the end of the regular season on October 1, the Mets and the AL leader (currently the Yanks) will get a bye, while the White Sox play the Tigers and the A’s play the Twins.  But extra special box seats will be reserved for the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Padres, so that they don’t miss out entirely on the action.

But it turns out that I can’t blog about any of that, because the impudent and talented (not to say “spunky") Chris Clarke has gone to the enormous trouble of publishing the graphic novel edition of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? I’ve included a hyperlink to this important document on the right sidebar, under the new heading, “Adaptations into other media.” (I use the plural “adaptations” because I’m still hoping that a certain commenter whose initials are N.L.—no, not you, National League! you suck!—will come up with the opera version by the end of the year.) But I thought I owed it to Chris, and to Literature, to table my perfunctory baseball blogging and direct you to this beautiful and inspirational story of brave and hardworking teaching assistants at the People’s Revolutionary State University.

Thank you, Chris.  On behalf of everyone at PRSU, I am deeply touched.

Posted by Michael on 09/19 at 10:43 AM
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Monday, September 18, 2006

Over the weekend

When I heard that a prominent conservative blogger had gone after a young feminist blogger because she had dared to have breasts in the vicinity of former President Clinton in the course of a meeting between Clinton and liberal bloggers (“she wears a tight knit top that draws attention to her breasts and stands right in front of him and positions herself to make her breasts as obvious as possible”), I thought, “well, what do you expect from these Dorito-flecked guys typing in their mothers’ basements—they literally have nothing better to do.”

But when I learned that the blogger in question was not a Dorito-flecked guy typing in his mother’s basement but a tenured law professor, I thought, “wow, that’s remarkably pathetic.  That might be one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen on the Internets.”

And when I saw that the tenured law professor was a woman who was chastising the young liberal blogger in the name of feminism, while writing, “Jessica should have worn a beret. Blue dress would have been good too” and “Jessica looks like Paula Jones,” I thought, “good lord, that’s more disingenuous and gratuitously vile than I can say.  I’m so sorry this professor was asked by the Chronicle of Higher Education to participate in the same forum on academic blogging in which I appeared back in July.”

And then when I discovered that the tenured law professor was replying to people who’d pointed out that there was nothing exceptional about Jessica’s clothing or the photo in which she appeared by telling them to face reality, and replying to Jessica directly (who’d pointed out that the professor was attacking her for her appearance) by telling her not to flatter herself, I thought, “heaven help us, that’s positively delusional.”

And then when I got word that the tenured law professor had upped the ante by insisting that the young feminist’s blog was “one of those blogs that are all about using breasts for extra attention,” I thought, “good grief, wait until the poor clueless dear hears about the talented young feminist writers who work at Bust magazine.  She’s liable to blow a gasket, she is.”

And then when I realized that the tenured law professor had unleashed hundreds of nasty comments about interns and Monicarama on her own blog (none of which she bothered to check or moderate) as well as sparking far more disgusting attacks on the young feminist by truly unhinged right-wing bloggers, I thought, “my stars, what truly despicable aggression-by-proxy this tenured law professor is engaging in.  I suppose some people don’t have anything else to blog about, though—it’s not as if they can write lovely things about all our successes in Iraq or all the wonderful work their leader has done in New Orleans.  I suppose it makes sense, in a sad and twisted kind of way, that they wallow in their little fantasies about Monica, especially since that pusillanimous Senate refused to treat them to the spectacle of having Monica re-enact her “encounters” with Clinton on the Senate floor, which is what they really wanted all along.  It’s their version of partying like it’s 1999, and for some of them, it’s all they have left.”

But then, finally, when I found out that the tenured law professor who’d started all this pettiness and viciousness was now complaining self-pityingly about her critics’ unpleasantness and partisanship and incivility, I knew what we were dealing with. 

Because when I became the director of a humanities center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1997, I was required to attend an “administrator orientation.” To my surprise, “administrator orientation” consisted of two days’ worth of learning how to deal with unfair and/or unbalanced professors and staff, who, we were told, would make our lives hell at the very first opportunity.  (And you know what?  Even though my center had no permanent faculty and only two staff members, the orientation leaders were entirely right about this.) And one remark from that orientation has stayed with me for almost ten years.

A bully, we were told, is someone who knocks you down and takes your lunch money.

An academic bully is someone who runs into you, falls backward, claims injury, and sues you for your lunch money.

So, Jessica, I’m so sorry you’ve been run into by one of our academic bullies.  We’ll do what we can on our end to shun them, and we hope it’ll help.

Note for commenters:  this blog does not tolerate comments about anybody’s physical appearance, unless of course you want to point out in passing that U. No. looks a little bit like Zod.

Posted by Michael on 09/18 at 09:35 AM
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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday sockpuppet postscript

I know I should take it easy on poor Lee Siegel.  The guy has undergone the singular misfortune of making himself a laughingstock just before his book of collected reviews and essays was published, and that can’t be pleasant. 

So I understand why he’s had to make the rounds of the New York print media and answer embarrassing questions about his sprezzatural alter ego.  It’s got to be a painful exercise, because even as Siegel tries to blame his fatuousness and self-regard on the blogosphere in the most remarkably fatuous and self-regarding ways (“I assumed an alias, I guess, because I didn’t want to stoop to their level, not realizing that I was stooping to their level”), he has to do so in articles that inform people—especially those people who don’t read “web” “logs”—that he’d spent a few months of his life praising himself as brave and brilliant and handsome and witty and charming and talented and also really brilliant.  Even the New York Observer profile, in the course of hailing him (oddly) as “an increasingly rare breed—a combative intellectual generalist” (quoi?—there are entire neighborhoods in New York zoned CIG-1 specifically for combative intellectual generalists), had to let its readers in on the back story:

Mr. Siegel was first drawn into Internet anonymity last February, after his condescending column offering advice to Jon Stewart before he hosted the Oscars inspired dozens of nasty comments in response. Under the heading “Siegel is my hero,” the first of 15 posts by “sprezzatura” read: “How angry people get when a powerful critic says he doesn’t like their favorite show! Like little babies. Such fragile egos …. Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep.” It followed later with: “Groupthink from a mob of bullies cowering behind their user-name aliases. Groupthink! Groupthink! Naaa naaa naaa-naaa naaa!”

So for a moment, I had a soupçon of sympathy for the guy.  Really, I did.

And then this morning I find that I’m cheek-by-jowl with him in the Sunday Times Magazine.  That’s me in “The Way We Live Now,” and that’s him in the“Questions For” feature.  Quelle surprise!  C’est bizarre!  Et quelle coincidence!

All right, just one thing.  I actually don’t want to get on Mr. Siegel’s case—there are far greater evils in the world, like smooth jazz.  But this one thing vexed me mightily:

Did you feel that you were doing something ethically questionable when you posted, for instance, a comment by Sprezzatura that carried the headline “Siegel Is My Hero”?

Every man is a hero to his alias.

Now, come on already with the attempt at light-wit cleverness. People!  Citizens!  Stop him before he alludes again!

Because the allusion here is to the phrase “no man is a hero to his valet.” We got that.  But, of course, that line suggests that the valet sees the clay feet underneath the heroic dress, whereas Siegel slyly (but not that slyly) suggests that all of us have heroic self-images that we’d indulge if only we could get away with it.  “Come, come,” Siegel’s repartee says, “we would all name our sockpuppets ‘sprezzatura’ if given the opportunity, would we not?”

Er, no.  I’m afraid you’re alone on this one, Mr. Siegel.  My own personal sockpuppet is called “Cyberpunk Composite Entities,” and I invented it on this sinuous thread last February.  When I asked people to stop calling U. No. D. Ho., Rich Puchalsky wrote in to say,

Can I still keep calling him “Horowitz” and speculating about him as a sort of cyberpunk composite entity?

To which Cyberpunk Composite Entities replied,

We really wish you wouldn’t pawn him off on us.  What did we do to deserve this?

CCE then mysteriously appeared this past May in this twisted thread over at The Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony, in which a commenter named “nobody” wrote, rather nastily,

Oh man, I truly do hope Dr Bérubé sees fit to kick Siegel’s sorry pompous ass.

To which I replied, in my own name,

You know, I’ve long believed that nobody reads my archives.

To which a person now calling himself “dr nobody” said,

Now that’s what I call service! And with an eerily prescient post too. Thank you, sir. Your archives are truly incomparable.

Well, that degree of synchronicity, combined with praise for my incomparable archives, must’ve smelled a bit funny, so a commenter named “Thomas Nephew” appeared a couple of hours later to demand an explanation:

Admit it, Berube—you’re nobody.

To which I replied, under the name “Cyberpunk Composite Entities,”

I admit it three or four times a day, Thomas, but I’d never choose it as a blog comment name. Nobody would.

I signed that comment with my own url, though.  And everybody left the room happy.

OK, so now you know.  For every man is a cyberpunk composite entity to his . . . uh . . . to his . . . oh, never mind.

Posted by Michael on 09/17 at 07:05 PM
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Friday, September 15, 2006

ABF Friday:  Mordant Celebration edition!

One year ago today I was having one of the better times of my life.  I was in northern California, attending the wedding ceremony of my old friend Larry Gallagher, whom I’d met in college and with whom I’d played some fine music back in the day, and Catherine Shaddix, whom he’d met back in the more recent (mid-90s) day at the Mount Baldy Zen Center.  It was a thoroughly Buddhist ceremony—nothing wasted, everything fun, very moving vows, and a hilarious discussion afterwards about whether the Vipassana ideal of lovingkindness wasn’t too difficult for us mere humans to achieve (and, relatedly, whether it was a bad idea to have a belief system in which one was constantly weighed in one’s own scales and found wanting, what with all those “hindrances” in the way) and whether Buddhists might not be better off with a more realistic outlook that involved 80 percent lovingkindness and 20 percent revenge.

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was playing music again with Larry and other-former-bandmate Oren Bloedow and about seven or eight terrific musicians (“terrific” here meaning “much much better at playing music than I am”).  I had neglected to bring my hi-hat cymbals with me to San Francisco, and I was frantically writing this review essay on the trip and meeting the delightful Chris Clarke along the way, so part of the weekend involved a series of Madcap Adventures that I did not fail to detail on this blog last year.  (Dang, I just reread that post and got all wistful.) I hadn’t played music in public for about six years, and I haven’t played since.  I don’t know why.

And, as I wrote in that post, our set ended on a most fun and kinda-ironic (and therefore even more fun) note:

My part of the evening was capped off when word got around the crowd that no one in the United States could be properly married until the band played “Celebration,” whereupon we all got back up on stage and played a seven-minute jam that included an extended solo so remarkable that half the musicians spun around and said, WTF? as one of the guitarists took the tune to places it had never been.  As we ended sharply on “everyone around the world, come on”—improbably, since we had never played the song before—Kid B brought the celebration to a close, declaring, “by the power invested in me by Kool and the Gang, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Well, what I didn’t tell you last year was that the next morning, as the entire wedding party of thirty-or-forty-or-so people gathered for casual breakfast and coffee and chatter in the crisp California sunshine, Larry and I and a small group of people (including Joey Cheezhee of Joey Cheezhee and the Velveeta Underground, about whom I’d heard so much over the years but had never met) had a soul-searching discussion that will serve, one year later, as the basis for today’s Arbitrary But Fun Friday.

It started like this.  Rob Riddell, one of those fine musicians (and the author of the “about Larry” page of Larry’s website), was going to be married three weeks hence, and he’d gotten such a kick out of the impromptu “Celebration” celebration that he was reportedly thinking of playing the song at his wedding.  Quite apart from the question of whether this constituted an illegitimate form of copying-off, there was the question—and I don’t remember who first brought it up—of whether it was appropriate to play “Celebration” only three weeks after playing “Celebration,” because, after all, as the first verse clearly states,

There’s a party goin’ on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years

And who would want to violate the letter and the spirit of this powerful song?

On the other hand, no one in the United States can be properly married until the band plays “Celebration.” So we were faced with something of a dilemma.

My contribution to the discussion went like this: the question about “Celebration” unfortunately opens out onto the entire genre of packaged-party songs, such as Madonna’s “Holiday” and Chic’s “Good Times.” Because the entire premise of these songs is that our lives are, in fact, full of stress and strife, and we’re just going to take this one day (and night) and have ourselves a goddamn good time if it kills us.  So you obviously can’t play them three weeks apart.  You have to wait until you’ve accumulated enough agony, enough sorrow and trouble, and then you can play one of them again.

Madonna makes this quite clear:

It’s time for the good times
Forget about the bad times, oh yeah
One day to come together
To release the pressure
We need a holiday

“Put your troubles down/ It’s time to celebrate,” she sings, and though there’s an obligatory note of optimism—“Let love shine/ And we will find/ A way to come together/ And make things better,” we know this is so much horseshit, because the song opened by telling us we were allowing ourselves “just one day out of life” (my emphasis).  The note of optimism fools no one.  The song just keeps on mentioning pressure and troubles and bad times.  And that’s because when tomorrow comes, we return to the salt mines, where (if God is merciful) we will soon expire.

“Good Times” puts more of an emphasis on “good” times, as you might imagine, but despite the incessantly repeated (and therefore ultimately unconvincing) claim that “these are the good times,” the song just can’t help alluding to the conditions that make it necessary:

Must put an end
To this stress and strife
I think I want to live the sporting life

(This, folks, is why Raymond Williams was right to say that “we have to break from the common practice of isolating the object and then discovering its components.  On the contrary we have to discover the nature of a practice and then its conditions.”)

And then there is the truly ominous second stanza, which ends with that idyllic picture of “Clams on the half-shell/ And roller skates, roller skates,” but predicates this vision on what can only be called a sense of urgency and despair:

A rumor has it that it’s getting late
Time marches on, just can’t wait
The clock keeps turning, why hesitate
You silly fool, you can’t change your fate

Scholars of packaged-party songs have tried to gloss this stanza by way of its echo of “Time’s winged chariot” (“But at my back I always hear/ Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;/ And yonder all before us lie/ Deserts of vast eternity,” from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”), thereby claiming “Good Times” for the carpe diem tradition.  (The opening line, “a rumor has it,” is pretty clearly a nod to that tradition.) But still, my point remains.  Andrew Marvell certainly couldn’t utter these words to his coy mistress every three weeks, and you can’t play any of these songs that frequently, either.

Few artists have demystified the “party song” tradition so thoroughly as Mary J. Blige, of course, whose delightful “Family Affair” and “Dance for Me” are bracingly insistent on their status as tenuous (though thumpin’) respites from “drama” and “situations” and “BS.” “Dance for Me” admits, “And I know you been stressed/ That’s how we got you messed up,” and “Family Affair” goes so far as to suggest that the first injunction to “leave your situations at the door” was insufficient, and requires a second, more emphatic “I told you leave your situations at the door” (emphasis added, but already implied, I think).

In fact, as our post-wedding discussion progressed, our little group began to wonder if there were any get-up-and-dance songs that weren’t ultimately self-consuming artifacts.  For does not the seemingly straightforward exhortation to get on the good foot imply a bad foot, and that you may be on it as we speak?  And who wants to be reminded of that bad foot in a song about the good foot?  “Ain’t nothing goin’ on but the rent/ A whole lotta bills and my money’s spent/ And that’s on my bad foot.” See?  Told you.

I’ll develop this theme in another post, when I explain why Sam Cooke’s “We’re Havin’ a Party” actually suggests (not in its lyrics but in Cooke’s delivery) that the comforts of this world, even unto the Cokes in the icebox and the popcorn on the table, are paltry and evanescent, and that our true condition consists of misery and grief and mourning.

But for now, here’s our ABF question: is it possible, knowing what we now know, to play or dance to any of these songs unironically?  And precisely how long should we wait before playing or dancing to them again?

Happy anniversary, Larry and Catherine, and thanks again for a lovely party that will last throughout the years.

Side notes: Check out Larry’s new CD, just released the other day or so!  As the website says, “‘Can I Go Now?’ continues in the long tradition of Larry Gallagher albums that began with his other CD three years ago.” I especially recommend “I’m Deep (Will You Sleep with Me),” and I can’t resist mentioning that I couldn’t resist quoting, in Liberal Arts, Larry’s wry take on the guilty-white-liberal phenomenon in “I’m Sorry For What My People Did to Your People,” namely, the stanza that goes,

I’m sorry for what my people did to your people
It was a nasty job
Please note the change of attitude
On the bumper of my Saab.

The first CD is well worth your while, too, ranging from the lovely “Disappointment Slough” to the laugh-til-you-cry “Wimpy White Guys with Guitars.” Just don’t tell Larry I sent you.  Make him guess.

And Jamie turns 15 tomorrow!  We’re taking him to this gig tonight.  And let’s hope he likes his new iPod!  Celebrate good times, come on!

Posted by Michael on 09/15 at 10:50 AM
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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Emergent new feature:  Liberal Thursday!

Welcome, everyone, to Liberal Thursday!  On Liberal Thursday, we’ll look at what people are saying about What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (Those of you who have already heard enough on the subject can give this blog a pass on Liberal Thursdays and wait for Arbitrary But Fun Fridays, which, I promise, will be 100 percent free of my-book-this and my-book-that.  And also fun.) We’ll be sure to take note whenever someone says something that is inaccurate and/or unfair, and we’ll try to learn a few things along the way as well, because we know the Internets are full of people who have helped to shape (or change) our thinking on any number of subjects.  And we’ll stop referring to ourselves in the third person second person fourth person first person plural right now!

This week I’m pleased to find that renowned libertarian economist Tyler Cowen recently posted some comments about the book.  Professor Cowen is the author of, among other things, In Praise of Commercial Culture (2000), What Price Fame? (2002), Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures (2004), and, most recently, Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding (2006).  His remarks on Liberal Arts start off like this:

Having been pilloried by The Weekly Standard for praising American universities and their diversity, I feel I have the liberal credentials to take a sideways whack at this new book…

OK, so this isn’t a book review so much as Fun with a Piñata.  But so what?  I’m a big guy, I can take a sideways whack or two.

I did enjoy and indeed finish it.  The book defends the liberal nature of the university but more importantly it has an excellent discussion of “the postmodern novel” (the author’s field, apparently), including a brilliant take on William Dean Howells and a good discussion of The Great Gatsby.

This is very sweet, and I’m quite flattered.  It’s too kind, actually. About 40 percent too kind (I have a meter in my office).  My reading of William Dean Howells is merely careful—really garden-variety stuff for any literature professor with a sense of historical context.  But I’m especially glad that Professor Cowen liked those parts of the book that deal with literature, and I’m truly grateful that he read them.  Literary criticism is my specialty, after all.

Its portrait of the American university, however flawed, is closer to the truth than what one finds in the right-wing scaremongers.

I’ll take this faint praise—I’m not proud about such things.  And now we get to the flaws:

But reading this book shows me—contrary to the author’s intentions—why so many college students have turned to the so-called “Right.” Michael Bérubé, the author:

1. Believes that David Horowitz is a very powerful man.

2. Claims that libertarians are simply ignorant of poverty and therefore wrong.  At least libertarians are “quite smart now and then” and yes that is a quotation.

3. Repeatedly rejects political views by citing the (supposed) moral failings of their undergraduate proponents.

4. Claims conservatives hate social security “because it works.” By the way, that is also why conservatives hate universities.

5. Argues that “the real scandal of public universities is that they have become increasingly beholden to right-wing demogoguery...”

6. Believes that he is holding genuine dialogue with alternative political views.

Ouch!  Those six sideways whacks hurt.  I’m gonna hafta handle them one by one.  I’ll leave aside the claim about students turning to the “so-called ‘Right,’” because survey says Professor Cowen doesn’t actually have any evidence for that one.

1. Believes that David Horowitz is a very powerful man.

Well, that’s not quite right.  My book actually says this:

Though many mainstream pundits and commentators consider Horowitz a fringe figure, a former far-left ideologue turned far-right ideologue, his Academic Bill of Rights is no joke, and has won him audiences with sympathetic state lawmakers like Ohio’s [Larry] Mumper, Minnesota’s Republican state senator Michele Bachmann, and Colorado’s Republican governor Bill Owens.

These days, Horowitz also has the ear of John Boehner, Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, and, as you probably know, his book The Art of Political War and Other Radical Pursuits is among Karl Rove’s very favorite things.  Whether that makes Horowitz “very powerful” or not is your call, of course. 

But you know, I’ve run into this kind of thing before—and almost always from smart academic conservatives.  “David Horowho?” they say.  “Dinesh D’Somebody?  Never heard of them.  Fringe figures, really, my boy—seriously, it’s not as if these people have any influence on public discourse.  Quite frankly, you do yourself and your work a disservice by attending to them.”

So no, I do not believe that David Horowitz is a very powerful man.  I do not say such a thing in my book.  But I believe that his criticisms of American universities and certain “dangerous professors” are pernicious and influential (though notoriously slipshod and factually challenged), and must be dealt with.

2. Claims that libertarians are simply ignorant of poverty and therefore wrong.  At least libertarians are “quite smart now and then” and yes that is a quotation.

OK, this falls into the “inaccurate and/or unfair” category.  Because yes, it’s a quotation, but it’s not a very responsible one.  In chapter 4, I talk about students of all political persuasions (and not, say, famous libertarian economists), and here’s some of what I say about those post-adolescent libertarians:

The libertarians are, for me, the most peculiar assortment in the mix.  They’re usually well-informed on civil liberties, abortion, gay rights, and the sheer cruelty and foolishness of America’s drug laws (and no, it’s not just a matter of keeping your laws off my bong).  They’re generally confused but nonetheless rigidly dogmatic on economic issues, having little or no understanding what unregulated, scorched-earth capitalism actually entails and little or no concern about poverty or disability.  They’re quite smart now and then about the intrusive, in loco parentis style of campus management that they identify with what I call the aggressive Lutheran liberalism I encountered in the midwest (the kind in which your public-spirited but nosy neighbors pull over your car to make sure you’re wearing your seatbelt, because it’s good for you) and that they consider the local version of the so-called “nanny state”; but they’re reflexively and sometimes ignorantly opposed to any regulatory or redistributive scheme whatsoever, as if tainted soup, securities fraud, defective automobiles and toxic-waste dumping will all get sorted out by the wisdom of the market and the work of many invisible hands.

So why do I say that they’re only quite smart “now and then” about campus policies?  Because right now, for example, their biggest concern is Penn State’s banning of the consumption of alcohol in the football parking lot during games, that’s why.  They’re treating this as if it constituted a human-rights offense on the order of Mao’s cultural revolution.  So yeah, sometimes college libertarians are quite smart.  Sometimes they’re not.  That’s the way it goes.  (Whereas if I’d wanted to be all snarky and dismissive about young libertarians, I would have cited Kieran Healy’s immortal line, “Ayn Rand. Fourteen year olds of the world unite! The car keys shall be yours by sheer force of will! Objectivism requires it!”)

And as for Cowen’s line about how “libertarians are simply ignorant of poverty and therefore wrong”: note that I actually said they have little or no concern about poverty or disability.  Indeed, I might add that some libertarians can’t even bring themselves to type the word “disability.” But that would be mean.

3.  Repeatedly rejects political views by citing the (supposed) moral failings of their undergraduate proponents.

You know, I think this is about the dang libertarians again.  Because in reality, chapter 4 criticizes the campus left and the campus right too, and argues that certain forms of campus leftism provide “a powerful device for driving young independents and libertarians straight into the arms of the College Republicans.” So it’s kinda ironic in a post-postmodern way that Professor Cowen claims that my book does the same thing.

4. Claims conservatives hate social security “because it works.” By the way, that is also why conservatives hate universities.

Guilty as charged!  Though I note that some conservatives also hate universities because they don’t like those areas of cultural life that don’t answer directly to the state.  And some of them hate that gay-and-lesbian studies thing we got goin’ on.

As for Social Security, I think the history of conservative opposition to the program bears me out pretty well.  But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I? 

5. Argues that “the real scandal of public universities is that they have become increasingly beholden to right-wing demogoguery...”

Penalty on the offense, fifteen yards, illegal ellipsis.  (We’ll decline the five-yard misspelling penalty.) Here, Professor Cowen makes it sound as if I’m talking about right-wing demagoguery on campus (and how ridiculous that would be!), when in fact the passage makes it quite clear that I am doing no such thing:

The real scandal of Social Security is that the truly rich are largely exempt from contributing to it; the real scandal of public universities is that they have become increasingly beholden to right-wing demagoguery with respect to “the public” (as in, “why should your taxes pay the salaries of these America-hating liberals”) even as right-wing demagogues in elected office have managed to cut our public funding from the states.  The result is a weird and thoroughly dishonest political two-step, whereby your local Republican state legislator or Democratic (but not that tax-and-spend kind of Democratic) governor alternates between (1) cutting funds for public colleges, demanding that State U. find ways of “doing more with less” in the name of fiscal austerity, and (2) crying that it is an outrage that State U. staged “The Vagina Monologues” with the tax money of the good God-fearing people of upper Appalachia or rural Oklahoma, regardless of whether that venerable Eve Ensler standby was sponsored by any public funds.  It’s a neat trick, invoking the public with one hand and privatizing the enterprise with the other.  But it works, and as a result, tuitions are indeed higher than they should be.  That’s what “partial privatization” is all about: passing the social costs of public goods onto individuals, leaving students and families to fend for themselves as best they can.  If this is fine with you, so be it: you’re a conservative or a libertarian.  If you think this is a suspect or foolhardy enterprise, you may already be a liberal or progressive.  In that case, more power to you.

6. Believes that he is holding genuine dialogue with alternative political views.

This item, preceded as it is by the first five, suggests that I am self-undermining—if not a simple hypocrite.  But for the record, when I wrote What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? I did not think I was holding genuine dialogue with alternative political views.  Actually, I thought I was writing a book with an argument, and disagreeing with any number of other people’s books and essays along the way. 

Cowen concludes:

If we bundle this all up and put it against the “...the world is a fragile place and liberty is dear.  Let us start with an ethic of individual responsibility, family values, strong national defense, low taxes, and a deep belief in the sacred nature of mankind, and no we cannot elevate every injustice,” I know which vision the American people—including their undergraduates—will choose.  (For new MR readers, I should note that those are not exactly my views, it is just one shorthand description of parts of the American right.)

Bérubé, by the way, has a brilliant performance art-worthy fantasy segment on why 50 percent tax rates would not (should not?) deter anyone from working or producing.  Excerpt:  “I find it hard to imagine a Clever Entrepreneur who thinks, “Well, I’ve made ten million this year, but if I make another two million I only get to keep one million of it, so I’m going to stop developing and promoting my product right now."” (p.286).  Ah, if only all taxes fell on pure profit.  It is even sadder to learn that many wealthy people are “hoarding it [their money],” rather than creating jobs with it.

Well, we’re all about brilliant performance-art on this humble blog, so, second thing first: it really and truly is the case that conservatives and libertarians argue that high marginal tax rates on income discourage “growth,” by which they means the amassing of wealth by individuals.  I don’t understand that at all, and though I freely admit that I’m out of my depth on this one, Professor Cowen’s sniffy dismissal does not enlighten me.  (Later in the very paragraph Cowen cites, I wrote, “dammit, Jim, I’m a literature professor, not a tax specialist,” though my editor forced me to delete the first two words in page proofs.) But my point was that I don’t believe that all the ultra-ultrawealthy are really creating jobs with their profits (and yes, I was talking only of income taxes, even though I know that other taxes do exist; for the record, I favor taxes on investments and inherited wealth, too), and that I don’t see why a tax code in a democracy shouldn’t try to discourage the hoarding of great wealth by individuals.

But I do thank Professor Cowen for reading my book, for liking the discussions of literature, and for disagreeing openly with me on those matters about which we disagree. 

And now first thing last.  As for the fragile world and its unelevatable injustices and the vision the American people will choose, well, I’m tempted to remind readers of Professor Cowen’s vision of New New Orleans, free, free at last from the shackles of building codes (“the city should help create cheap housing by reducing legal restrictions on building quality, building safety, and required insurance”). As he wrote in Slate this past April, the construction of post-Katrina shantytowns might be a good thing for music lovers:

Shantytowns might well be more creative than a dead city core. Some of the best Brazilian music came from the favelas of Salvador and Rio. The slums of Kingston, Jamaica, bred reggae. New Orleans experienced its greatest cultural blossoming in the early 20th century, when it was full of shanties. . . .  Just imagine the chant: Shantytowns for New Orleans now.

I have indeed imagined that chant, as it happens.  And if you bundle up those shantytowns and contrast them with a fair and balanced representation of the vision of America I offer in my book, I think I know which vision the American people—including their undergraduates—will choose.

Posted by Michael on 09/14 at 07:58 AM
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