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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy halloween

The Late 2006 Strategic Re-Posting Program continues today with this timely news item:

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Fox News celebrity and political commentator Bill O’Reilly lashed out today at Christian conservatives’ “attack on Halloween,” ascribing it to “a bunch of religious fanatics who don’t understand what America is all about.”

“For crying out loud,” O’Reilly said to one caller on his nationally-syndicated radio program, The Radio Factor, “Americans have always loved Halloween.  Many of the Founding Fathers called it their favorite holiday.  Benjamin Franklin himself frequently conversed with legions of the undead on All Hallow’s Eve, and every year Thomas Jefferson couldn’t wait to dress up as a vampire and burn pentangles into the lawn at Monticello.  It’s a historical fact.”

O’Reilly was particularly incensed at a recent decision of the state supreme court of Mississippi, holding that the establishment clause of the First Amendment prevents schools and courthouses from displaying Wiccan artifacts and statements of principles.  “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” O’Reilly thundered at one caller who had called to support the Mississippi court’s decision.  “Wicca is a perfectly peaceful, natural belief system that should be promoted in every public square in the United States.  That’s the kind of America we need to see today, and no activist judge should stand in our way.”

In Paducah, Kentucky, where a display of flesh-eating zombies was recently removed from the front lawn of the Municipal Building, citizens rallied in support of paganism, demon worship, and equal rights for residents of the spirit world.  “What’s wrong with a simple celebration of the one night on which flesh-eating zombies can freely roam the earth?” asked Paducah city commissioner Robert “Bud” Novak.  “Flesh-eating zombies are central to our way of life; they’re the basis of our country’s founding documents.  We as Americans are endowed with inalienable rights by flesh-eating zombies, and we think it’s only right to honor those zombies here at the Municipal Building.”

O’Reilly applauded the citizens of Paducah for standing up to what he called “the Christian reign of terror in America.” “If these people had their way,” O’Reilly said, “they’d banish every form of pagan worship from the land, and they’d ban half the books and movies our kids have grown to love.  It’s time to stand up to these bullies, and stand up for witches, ghouls, and undead-Americans everywhere.  And I say to any flesh-eating zombies who might be listening to the Factor this evening: Bill O’Reilly is looking out for you.”

Posted by Michael on 10/31 at 08:28 AM
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Monday, October 30, 2006

Meet me in St. Louis

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No, I didn’t shave the beard.  I drove down to St. Louis yesterday to meet Nick for dinner, and I was way too tired to blog last night.  So I decided to edit and re-post this old thing from March 2005, when I visited Nick in St. Louis for the first time.  Those of you who read this essay last time around and who think this blog should post new material once in a while will just have to wait until tomorrow—if, that is, I can get it together to write something for tomorrow after I get home.

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March 3, 2005

I know my eyebags are terrible.  When I said I was exhausted, folks, I really meant it:  over the past nine weeks I’ve written four book chapters as well as one essay on the 2004 election and a paper on “Shame by Association,” and during my recent travels I also read twenty-something applications for fellowships and six essays for a special issue I’m supposed to be editing.  Oh yeah, and I took a day and a half to go over the copyedited version of an essay that’s forthcoming in PMLA.  And, of course, I’ve had all this computer and blog trouble in the past two weeks.  So I’m sorry I look so haggard and dissipated, really I am.

But this is not about me, so get off my case.  This is about Barry Commoner, who has a sidewalk star in University City at the outskirts of St. Louis, and it’s about St. Louis itself.  And the story goes like this.

I met Nick for dinner last Sunday night.  He told me about an Ethiopian restaurant he’d been to a few times (this is a good sign, I thought—my kid the college student is recommending local Ethiopian restaurants to me), so I picked him up at his dorm at 6, conducted the traditional father-son knife-fight, and took him to the Red Sea.  After dinner we walked around a bit, and he said something about not realizing how many amazing people had been associated with St. Louis over the years—not just Scott Joplin, Miles Davis or Chuck Berry, but even people like T. S. Eliot.  “Oh, jeez, don’t get me started,” I said, thinking (at the time) that I knew a thing or two about famous people from St. Louis.  “I love to tweak the Eliot fans by referring to their guy as the best poet ever to come out of Missouri, when of course he spent his whole life pretending he’d been born and raised in the Norcesterwich district of Cheltenhamfordshire.” We walked up and down the avenue, with Nick providing glosses on the local establishments—the Thai pizza place and the nightclub where Modest Mouse played before they became alt.darlings—and me providing glosses on the people enshrined in St. Louis’s “Walk of Fame.” “T. S. Eliot is the least of it,” I said. “I want to see if they have a star for William S. Burroughs, who—this is something you should know, son—was the heir of the Burroughs fortune, a fortune made in the ‘calculators’ of the early twentieth century, back when the amazing mechanical ‘adding machine’ was the iPod of the day.  Now, that would rock.” But before I could go on about William S. Burroughs, I was brought up short by Dick Gregory’s star. Dick Gregory!  Mother of Moloch, I wasn’t surprised by Redd Foxx’s star—on the contrary, I told Nick about Foxx’s brief appearance in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and mentioned casually that most people don’t know how black a city St. Louis is and how important it is to African-American history, whereupon Nick said, “oh, tell me about it” and proceeded to narrate the story of the days last fall he spent canvassing for Kerry up and down St. Louis in precincts where, as he put it, “the only white guy I saw all day was me”—but I was strangely struck by Dick Gregory’s star.  “Nick, my son,” I said (no, I didn’t really say “Nick, my son,” any more than I said “this is something you should know, son”), “let me tell you who Dick Gregory is, apart from the bio on this plaque.  He’s somewhere on the long black comedy train between Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, and he ran for President in 1968—” at which point I realized that the plaque actually mentioned his Presidential bid—“and my parents, your grandparents, voted for him.”

Now, I should explain that Nick and I have had a good number of conversations over the past five years about third-, fourth-, and eighth-party voting, but (despite what some people like to believe about me) I’ve never once pretended that the left wing of the Democratic Party represents the left wing of the possible.  How could I?  In November 1968 there seemed no way for a conscientious progressive to vote for Humphrey, so my parents, being conscientious progressives, cast their ultimately meaningless votes for Dick Gregory.  Who, of course, has since become a wingnut with a special nutritional/ weight-loss program, and when Nick asked about his transformation (as opposed to that of David Horowitz, say), I had to admit that I had no idea what in the world had happened to poor Mr. Gregory in the intervening years, but that one of my college friends once proposed that the CIA had approached Gregory in the mid-1970s and offered him a choice between (a) becoming a bizarre right-wing hawker of health and diet foods and (b) being mysteriously shot outside a motel.

We turned and walked east along Delmar Boulevard, passing the stars of Josephine Baker, Dred and Harriet Scott, Agnes Moorehead, and Lou Brock, among many others.  Gradually, step by step, we were Discovering the St. Louis Network.

And as we talked, I remembered all the reasons I’m so fond of St. Louis, and why I’m glad Nick is going to college there, and even more glad that he’s not staying on the carefully manicured lawns of Wash. U., but actually getting out and canvassing the city—not just for John Kerry (or Chuck Berry), but as part of his architecture program, one course of which required him to propose and design an urban-renewal project for a section of the urb that needs serious renewing.  These days, though, my fondness for St. Louis is tinged by pity, and pity is among the cheapest and most insulting of emotions.  May’s Department Stores, the third largest public company in town, is folding its tent; American Airlines, having ingested the sorry remains of TWA, has cut its St. Louis flights by fifty percent, leaving behind a giant sucking sound at Lambert International Airport; and the historic downtown area—which has, alas, fallen prey to the kind of fools who think you can revive a downtown area by building more stadiums and parking lots, and who don’t realize that after the Blues and Rams games let out, everyone heads straight to their cars because there isn’t a single index of ordinary life (like grocery stores) within ten miles—is a study in depression, economic and affective.

And yet St. Louis is so rich, historically richer than many larger American cities and certainly most midwestern cities of any size.  It’s vastly older than Chicago or parvenus like Minneapolis or Denver; its blues history links it to New Orleans, Memphis, and Kansas City, while its frontier history—the justification for that ethereal arch—links it all the way back to the frigging Louisiana Purchase.  St. Louis is one of the most extraordinary urban palimpsests I’ve ever seen: it’s a sleepy, depressed-or-devastated Midwestern town covering a formerly hopping rhythm-and-blues town (Tina Turner gets a star, too, not far from Chuck Berry’s) covering an old, segregated Southern town (the Blues must be the only hockey team to be named after a W. C. Handy song) covering an early-nineteenth-century river town and inland installation of what Paul Gilroy famously called the “Black Atlantic.” And, of course, it’s still the best baseball town in the country [hey!  congrats to those Cards for winning 11 games in the playoffs, giving them 94 wins on the year!  --ed.], dating all the way back to the days when it represented the westernmost reach of the major leagues.  There’s old money in St. Louis that was already old and decrepit when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started that fire in Chicago in 1871—and I say this fully aware that upstart Chicago has since become vastly more dense and more interesting:  I lived for twelve years in Champaign, Illinois, and while I knew hundreds of faculty and students who routinely made the two-and-a-half hour trip to Chicago, I knew almost no one who made the two-and-three-quarters-hour trip to poor old St. Louis.  In fact, I knew almost no one who was aware that St. Louis has an entire district—“the Hill”—dotted with great (and, yeah, a couple less-than-great) Italian restaurants in the middle of a modest residential neighborhood.  But think back a hundred years, when St. Louis was still a world city—the kind of city that could host the 1904 Olympics (though some Chicagoans prefer to say “steal” rather than “host"), the kind of city about which you could exhort your friend Louis to meet you at the World’s Fair.  And then think about the reasons that some cities become “world cities” while others sink slowly into the swamp. 

St. Louis is also, for those of you keeping score at home, the city in which modernism finally died in 1972.  Don’t take my word for it—it was Robert Venturi’s call thirty years ago, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was demolished, we all began Learning from Las Vegas instead, and postmodernism was born.  But even still, you can experience late modernism by going to the Arch and being shuttled to the apex of the structure in little white spherical pods that (in this inevitably neo- era) will surely make you think of Austin Powers, which in turn will make you think of that Eero Saarinen mid-sixties era in which people apparently believed that the 1960s would look just like the 1950s, only Even More Modern (think Jetsons, early James Bond, JFK International—also designed by Saarinen—or the first hour of Catch Me if You Can).  And you can still experience the failures of postmodernism, too, by visiting the site of Pruitt-Igoe and realizing to your horror that the city has left the area to fall into decay and desuetude for over thirty years.

So Nick and I were thinking about all these things and more when we suddenly came across Barry Commoner’s star.  “Holy,” I said, far too loudly, “shit.” Barry Effing Commoner!  As if we hadn’t just conducted a postprandial discussion of futile fifth-party voting twenty minutes earlier à propos of Dick Gregory!  “Blessed Brother of Ba’al,” I said to my firstborn, “this Delmar Boulevard is like a goddamn Cavalcade of Alterity.  First we run across my parents’ eff-you, rock-throwing vote in ‘68, then we run across my eff-you, rock-throwing vote in ‘80, the very first vote I ever cast.  Bless St. Louis for enshrining Barry Commoner this way.  And bless St. Louis also for giving a star to William S. Burroughs, even if his plaque did call Naked Lunch ‘The Naked Lunch’ and give an erroneous publication date for it.  This is among the coolest minor things I have seen in all my travels across this dessicated and doomed planet, and I humbly request that you take a digital picture of me kneeling before Barry Commoner’s star, which I am not worthy to approach, what with my sallow complexion and my sorry eyebags and all.”

Thus, on Monday night, Nick snapped the picture you now see heading this post.  He’s a good kid, that Nick, and a regular tazmanian devil in a father-son knife fight.  Then after he took this pic outside the Tivoli, we went to see Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Bad Education, so that we could have the experience of watching lots of consensual and non-consensual gay sex in multiple, overlapping narrative frames that ultimately call into question the very parameters of what we normally understand as “acting” and “directing.” We think American fathers and sons ought to have more of these formative bonding experiences, so that they can discuss Almodóvar’s oeuvre and his sympathetic representations of women (who are almost completely absent from this film, oddly enough) and the implications of violating traditional narrative frameworks of representation while (don’t read this if you don’t like spoilers) depicting priests who assault young boys and thereby lead them to become transvestites and heroin addicts, then strike up an affair with the boy’s younger brother and eventually plot with him to kill the older brother.  And we think American fathers and sons should do all this in the dense historical palimpsest that is St. Louis, in the Tivoli, just a few yards north of Barry Commoner’s star in the Walk of Fame. 

Posted by Michael on 10/30 at 06:03 AM
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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Liberal Thursday IV:  Special Travel Edition!

As some of you have surely gathered by now, a good chunk of What’s Liberal? deals with the question of how to conceptualize intractable disputes.  I say “conceptualize” rather than “resolve” or “negotiate,” because the moment you’ve decided that a dispute can be resolved or negotiated, you’ve determined that it is not actually intractable.  The Habermas - Lyotard impasse thus seems to me to be more important than anything else that came out of the postmodernism debates of the early 1980s, precisely because it presents us with a debate that questions the purpose of debate itself.  (Habermas v. Foucault is not similarly recursive with regard to the metatheorization of debate.  That one can be summed up, quick and dirty fashion, as “ought one speak in sentences that include the word ‘ought’?”)

So, then, in the postmodernism chapter of What’s Liberal?, I rehearse a brief history of the term “postmodernism” before declaring my impatience with a great deal of what goes under the name and moving to the Really Good Stuff, namely, the impasse over how to think about impasses.  Here’s how I presented Habermas-Lyotard to my undergraduate honors students in the fall of 2001:

We can say neither that the debate is resolvable nor that it is unresolvable.  It is impossible not to take a position on this one, and worse, it is impossible not to take a position that betrays the nature of the debate. . . .  If you say that the dispute between Lyotard and Habermas can in fact be resolved by recourse to principles on which both parties can ultimately agree, you are, in effect, awarding the palm to Habermas and the pro-consensus, pro-communicative action party.  If, on the contrary, you give up and say that this one is simply a fundamental impasse and can’t be resolved, you have in effect resolved it, by awarding the palm to Lyotard and the pro-incommensurability, pro-heterogeneity party.  And you can’t say “neither of the above,” because that too defaults to Lyotard.

OK, hold that thought, if you would.  And now let’s turn to Maximilian Pakaluk’s recent review of my book in the National Review Online.

Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, having graduated from Harvard in 2005, and like Jonathan Liu, the young Harvard man who reviewed my book caustically in the New York Observer, he sounds like the kind of student who’d enliven any classroom.  And I should make it clear before I discuss his review that I am not surprised or dismayed by his dismissal of my book.  On the contrary, I am reassured, because anything else but dismissal in the pages of the National Review would produce a profound epistemic crisis—either on their part (we agree with Bérubé!  this calls our very existence into question!) or on mine (they like me!  they really like me!  what have I done to deserve this?)

Still, even though Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, he does make a few mistakes.  Here’s a small one:

Michael Bérubé argues that it is not only harmless that departments of liberal arts are rife with liberalism, but proper and to be expected. He doesn’t see this state of affairs as contrived, but as the natural outcome of the commitments entailed in pursuing the liberal arts. The corollary is that efforts at making the liberal arts more conducive to conservatism would require altering them—destroying them, even.

That’s a strange thing to say about a book which includes, among other things, this passage:

These days, I often think my field is so pervasively liberal/left that smart young conservatives will shun it altogether.  I know there are still some conservatives out there who truly love the arts and humanities—“old school” arts and humanities, usually, more Augustan than modern, or more Chaucerian than Kafkaesque, but I’ll settle for what I can get, and besides, some of those old schools were pretty good.  They may be a dying breed, as “conservatism” in America becomes more and more associated with the know-nothing, Tom DeLay wing of the Republican Party; as University of Texas philosophy professor Brian Leiter wrote in November 2004, “Perhaps . . . the ratio of Democratic voters to Republican voters in the academy has increased over time because the Republican party has gone increasingly bonkers, such that educated and informed people by and large can’t stomach it any more?” But when they disappear from the earth altogether, along with conservative American economists who believe in honest budgets and honest business practices (an endangered species) and conservative American environmentalists who respect scientific evidence (already extinct), I know that I will miss them terribly.  Or, to put this another way, I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study.

I’m serious about this.  I don’t mind in the least having substantial political disagreements with colleagues, just so long as they’re smart colleagues who hit the rhetorical ball back over the net with gusto and topspin.  I already have plenty of these on the left, even though Horowitz and company would have you believe that a department of Democrats is somehow a department in which everyone agrees with one another.  But when all the substantial intellectual disagreements in a discipline are arguments among leftists and liberals, the premises of argument are inevitably skewed– especially in those lefter-than-thou circles in which the most “oppositional” position claims for itself the greatest moral authority.  And when an entire department or an entire field of inquiry produces a uniform moral mist, it’s no wonder that after a while, it will attract only those aspirants who like breathing the air.

Here’s another of Mr. Pakaluk’s mistakes:

The connection between, say, reading Shakespeare and supporting socialized medicine may not be immediately apparent. To make it so is Bérubé’s aim.

Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, but this is not a very smart sentence.  For there is nothing in my book that will support the claim that I see any such connection, let alone the claim that I am trying to make one.  In fact, I don’t really understand why anyone would try.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pakaluk then compounds this error by laying out the structure of the book he thinks I meant to write, a book in which I argue for what he calls “the underlying incompatibility of conservatism and academia.” First, Pakaluk talks himself into believing I have argued that “the problem facing conservatives in the liberal arts is not an abundance of Ward Churchills, but something that runs much deeper. The liberal arts are by their nature liberal.” (These are his words, of course.) Then, he maps out the road this argument should take:

A straightforward argument to that effect would take the following structure: specification of the essential characteristic of the liberal arts, followed by demonstration of how these characteristics lead to liberal political views.  Bérubé is not quite so systematic, and he offers almost nothing by way of a developed explanation of what he takes the liberal arts to be—a curious omission, given the book’s title. To the extent that he makes a clear argument, it is this:  procedural liberalism—“ensuring that wide, vigorous, and meaningful discussion” about political and ethical questions of all sorts can take place—naturally gives rise to substantive liberalism — generally put, “that humans should be considered to have equal claim to basic human rights such as food, shelter, education, health care, and political representation.” While this procedural liberalism may be a necessary condition for the liberal arts (it would certainly have to be further specified), it is hardly sufficient.

Mr. Pakaluk seems like a smart young man, but here he does a quite terrible job of paraphrasing my argument about the relation of procedural liberalism to substantive liberalism.  In fact, he gets it completely wrong.  There is no necessary correspondence between the two whatsoever, which is why—as I have argued time and again on this blog, for example— traditional conservatives (as opposed to the radical right that currently runs the country) are procedural liberals.  In fact, I speak at the end of chapter one about the tensions between substantive and procedural liberalism:

The practice of critical thinking, after all, is not contentless:  it can and does challenge unreasoning prejudice of all kinds, and without it neither the Enlightenment nor the contemporary English department is thinkable.  And insofar as it places additional moral burdens on certain kinds of conservatives whose opposition to homosexuality stems from deeply held religious belief, yes, this kind of critical thinking can appear to such students to be a form of prejudice in itself. 

This conundrum, forged in the gap between procedural liberalism’s openness to debate and substantive liberalism’s opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia, seems to me one of the most difficult moral and intellectual quandaries any liberal teacher has to face. [Emphasis added for the benefit of Mr. Pakaluk, who may have missed this passage the first time around.] In the “political correctness” debates of yesteryear, it sometimes took the form of the mind-bending charge that liberals were the truly intolerant forces in American society, because they failed to tolerate certain forms of intolerance that were grounded in conservative religious belief.  This phrasing of the problem has befuddled more than one liberal, leaving such liberals not only befuddled but committed to finding better (and more liberal) ways of including the voices of people whose most cherished aim is to silence us forever.  Liberals are required to foster and practice a kind of critical pluralism with regard to social and cultural disputes, but they are not and should not be required to promote—or protect from criticism—the views of radicals and authoritarians who construe all forms of liberalism either as treason to the Republic or as grounds for eternal damnation.

Later in the same paragraph, I speak of procedural liberalism as “a form of pluralism and reasoned debate that does not always culminate in liberal conclusions.” My guess is that Mr. Pakaluk missed this passage too.  But I won’t italicize this one.  I think it’s pretty clear.

And then Mr. Pakaluk makes one really big mistake, and this one is kind of obnoxious.

Instead of speaking more about what the liberal arts are, Bérubé presents to the reader an extended recounting of the discussions he has led in his class on postmodernism. The aim, apparently, is to accomplish through description what is not accomplished through argument. Though postmodernism is an enigmatic and ill-defined designation, as Bérubé himself points out, he does a fine job of getting across the general idea. The reader is left with a good sense of the sort of professor who is uninterested in reality, truth, and other such antiquated ideas. Yet it is never made quite clear why becoming entangled in such confusion should be taken as a prerequisite for studying the liberal arts.

Interjected occasionally into the classroom discussions are Bérubé’s thoughts on why reality, etc., should be abandoned. They are revealing, but hardly convincing. Bérubé is an English professor, not a philosopher, and his arguments are less than rigorous. At one point, after quoting an author’s description of what it means to be a realist, he offers the rebuttal:  “This makes sense, I think, only if you don’t consider things like gravity and slavery to be qualitatively different things.” It is a coarse formulation of an argument that has been stated, and disputed, with far more refinement and insight. Bérubé is certainly entitled to arrive at his own conclusions about these questions, but it is absurd for him to posit them as essentially characteristic of the liberal arts, especially when they have been defended with the analytical rigor proper to an undergraduate seminar.

It is almost ridiculous that a book about liberalism in the liberal arts ends up being an apology for postmodernism.

Construing my argument about antifoundationalism as “thoughts on why reality, etc., should be abandoned” is not something that a smart young man should do.  It’s kind of intellectually dishonest, actually, because it entails saying things that are untrue, and when I say “untrue” I mean “false.” And you know, you don’t actually have to believe in the correspondence theory of truth in order to use the words “true” and “false”!  That’s a little game that especially annoying foundationalists like to play, just to see if we antifoundationalists will get angry or something.  (For more on the asymmetry involved in this misconstrual, see Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy. And for a brisk reply to Smith, see my friend Amanda Anderson’s The Way We Argue Now:  Studies in the Culture of Theory.)

So here, for the record, is the passage to which Mr. Pakaluk is referring.  It starts with Sam Harris’s brief for what he calls “ethical realism,” and my response.  First, Harris:

Realists believe that there are truths about the world that may exceed our capacity to know about them; there are facts of the matter whether or not we can bring such facts into view.  To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them.

Now, me:

This makes sense, I think, only if you don’t consider things like gravity and slavery to be qualitatively different kinds of objects—the first a natural phenomenon whose laws can be discovered by humans with great diligence (and which we still haven’t quite gotten the hang of, as the string theorists search for the principles of quantum gravity, and the advocates of a point theory of space search for principles that don’t involve vibrating strings), the other a cultural object created by humans, contested by humans, and gradually—and fitfully, and still not universally—abolished by humans.  The reason I disagree with Harris, the reason I am not what he calls an “ethical realist,” is that I believe that gravity and slavery are different kinds of things, and that objective, observer-independent knowledge about gravity is possible (this puts me at odds with Rorty) but should not be taken as a model for knowledge about human affairs.  I believe there are mind-independent entities, and that you can check this for yourself by kicking a stone; but I do not understand how people like Harris, who are so stringently skeptical about religious belief, can insist on the existence of mind-independent concepts.  And this, as my students gradually come to understand, is an incommensurability.  It is not an incommensurability about slavery itself; both the “ethical realists” and I are against it.  It is an incommensurability with regard to how one justifies one’s being against it.

I wrapped up this part of the course by telling my students that if they wanted to pursue this further, with real philosophers, they should consult Richard Rorty for (most of) my end of the discussion, and Thomas Nagel—in The View from Nowhere, for a start—for one of the most salient responses to Rorty.  (Today, I would also mention Simon Blackburn’s 2005 book, Truth: A Guide.  But I added, back in 2001, that many philosophy professors don’t even bother to consider Rorty a “real” philosopher, and that this too was evidence of the depth of the impasse.

As I explain in What’s Liberal?, there’s another reason I don’t share Harris’s faith (or that of any other “ethical realist") in mind-independent concepts: I think that believing in them can have nasty consequences.  That is, people who believe that they’ve discovered objective moral principles out there in the ether (as distinct from people who think they’re working out sublunary moral principles with their fellow human beings) are especially likely to think of people who believe otherwise—or who simply believe in other principles—as not merely mistaken about this or that but objectively wrong as measured by some nonhuman, observer-independent criterion.  Or, as I write elsewhere in the chapter, “you might conclude that people who disagree with you are not simply working from different moral premises but, rather, are alien—or opposed—to morality itself.  It then becomes all the easier to exclude them from the conversation, from all forms of human community.” And one of the purposes of the liberal arts—golly, but I thought this argument was as clear as a mountain stream—is to teach people how to think about fundamental disagreements in human affairs, and how to conceptualize fundamental disagreements without coming to the conclusion that the people who disagree with you must be expelled or exterminated.

Mr. Pakaluk missed all this, I suppose, just as he missed the passage in which I note that the foundationalist often relies on the shabby strategem of construing the antifoundationalist/ pragmatist as someone who, as Mr. Pakaluk writes about me, “is uninterested in reality, truth, and other such antiquated ideas.” Of course, I’m sorry that Mr. Pakaluk found my defense of pragmatism insufficiently rigorous for him.  But I’m informed that he majored in Sneering, which also explains that little “it is almost ridiculous that a book about liberalism in the liberal arts ends up being an apology for postmodernism” bit.

And then Mr. Pakaluk’s review just falls off the cliff:

It is a fascinating and difficult question, whether for certain professions, a person’s ability to do his work well depends on his views about fundamental principles. It is usually thought that the so-called “radical conservatives” are the ones who claim that the atheistic relativist could never be a good professor. How odd, then, to find Bérubé suggesting a similar claim, except under the opposite conditions, when it comes to the liberal arts.

If the work of an English professor can be done equally well by the realist and the postmodernist, then Bérubé’s explanation of liberal dominance in the universities falls flat. If it cannot, and one’s understanding of what an English professor should do depends entirely on one’s fundamental principles, then liberal dominance in the universities is arbitrary, a sort of intellectual Stalinism. Liberalism would be prevalent in the liberal arts because it is liberals who are deciding what the liberal arts are.

Folks, at this point the good Mr. Pakaluk is just making stuff up, attributing bizarre arguments to me and then finding “contradictions” in them.  Of course the work of an English professor can be done equally well by “the realist and the postmodernist,” though I hope I’ve shown (to quote a film that often gets cited on these here Googlenets), that although Mr. Pakaluk keeps using those words, I do not think they mean what he thinks they mean.  And I never claim that “the atheistic relativist could never be a good professor.” That would be just silly.

I do, however, believe that some intractable disputes are indeed intractable, which is why it is so very foolish of Mr. Pakaluk to write, in conclusion, “Bérubé’s book, while interesting enough, will do little to bridge the ‘intractable’ divide he describes.” Yet again (indeed, it seems by now to be something of a rhetorical tic), Mr. Pakaluk ascribes to me an aim I do not profess.  For those of us who know what “intractable” means do not go around trying to “bridge” intractable divides.  We do, however, try to clarify them, to describe them accurately, and to explain what is at stake in them.  For these, too, are among the tasks of the liberal arts.

Posted by Michael on 10/26 at 11:59 PM
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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Still more travels

In response to the overwhelming demand from one or two people in yesterday’s comments, I’m going to release the dates of my upcoming gigs (the What’s Liberal about Rhetorical Occasions? World Tour 2006).  If you’re going to be in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello!  Tickets are available through all Ticketmaster outlets and at the box office.

The next three weeks are unusually intense; ordinarily I don’t leave town (mostly for Jamie-related reasons) more than five times in a semester, and only once have I traveled on three consecutive weekends.  Weekend travel also messes up my hockey season, from which I have taken a six-week hiatus after opening the season quite well in both the A and B leagues.  (And aren’t you glad I spared you the updates on that?)

October 27-28: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my old haunt.  I’m still working on my paper for this one, but I assure you that I have written my bit for the big Cary Nelson Roast on Friday night.  That should be fun.  On Sunday I drive down to St. Louis to visit Nick.

November 2: Colorado College, Colorado Springs, right near my old friends at Focus on Beating the Children the Family.  And despite that talk description, I won’t actually argue against “the common notion that higher education is a bastion of the left.” I just threw that bit in there to aggravate that blogger over at ACTA!  (Actually, I didn’t write that blurb at all.  And I prefer to argue that the domination of a couple of academic fields by liberals and leftists is not necessarily good either for those academic fields nor for liberals and leftists.  But to hear the thrilling details, you’ll just have to come to the talk!)

And damn, but I have a big shiny forehead.  Topped off with helmet hair!  I’ll have to fix that one of these days.

November 4: Associated Colleges of the St. Lawrence Valley, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY.  This is a tough one; I’ll be traveling overnight and playing two back-to-back road games.  Let’s hope my preseason fitness regimen pays off!

November 9: Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, talking neither about What’s Liberal nor Rhet Ox but about the book in progress.

November 10: Midwest Modern Language Association, Chicago, keynote address, 6:30 pm (just scroll down to session number 104).  With film clips!  This one will be fun too.  I hope.

And that’s it for the rest of calendar year 2006.

Finally, in other news, this morning Marc Cooper informed me that I’m on some kind of new Ed Herman List.  The nature of this list escaped me at first; it has to do with Bruce Ackerman’s and Todd Gitlin’s response to this essay by Tony Judt, and Ol’ Ed writes:

First, A-G say that “We have all opposed the Iraq war as illegal, unwise and destructive of America’s moral standing. This war fueled, and continues to fuel, jihadis whose commitment to horrific, unjustifiable violence was amply demonstrated by the September 11 attacks…” It should be noted that the “all” who have signed on here (through October 23rd) as opposing the war does not include a large number of prominent liberals, including Paul Berman, David Corn, George Packer, Jean Beth [sic] Elshtain, Michael Walzer, Marc Cooper, Peter Beinart, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick, Jacob Weisberg, and Michael Berube, among others.

I wasn’t sure why this “should be noted”; Corn, Walzer, Cooper and I opposed the war whereas (I believe) everyone else on this list supported it.  So at first I thought this was just more of the Why Ed Herman is a Lot Like David Horowitz phenomenon: you know, both old frauds get a little confused at times, and throw the names of their many many enemies into a big pot regardless of the issue at hand.  (Todd Gitlin!  Michael Walzer!  Katie Couric!) But then, ten or fifteen seconds later, I realized that Ol’ Ed was implying that Corn, Walzer, Cooper and I didn’t sign the Ackerman-Gitlin thing because we supported war in Iraq.  And that makes a bit more sense, because it fits with what Ol’ Ed has been saying for three or four years now.

Just for the record, I didn’t sign the Ackerman-Gitlin statement ‘til this morning, because (as you can see from the previous post) I was traveling this past weekend, and I didn’t know about it.  Sometimes people publish these things without letting me see them first.  Sad but true!

But the reason it took me ten or fifteen seconds to realize the obvious is that while Ol’ Ed notes the “prominent liberals” who didn’t sign as of October 23, he doesn’t think much of the people who did sign, either:

There is also the question of the form and intensity of opposition to the war. Quite a few liberals, including Todd Gitlin, distanced themselves from the antiwar protests that took place before the war on the grounds of their improper leadership (ANSWER). . . .

Well, if Ed Herman wants to take time out from his current “research” into How Srebrenica Was Not Really Such a Big Deal to re-fight the intraleft battles of 2002, that’s OK with me.  People like Gitlin and Corn and Cooper and me got ourselves on Ed’s Enemies List back then because we opposed the war and believed that ANSWER was precisely the kind of group Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove would have designated to lead the antiwar movement if they were given their choice from a thousand-item menu of options.  See, we actually wanted millions and millions more of our fellow Americans to oppose the war in Iraq back before it started, long before the bodybags and busted budgets eventually turned public opinion our way; and we didn’t think it was a good idea to organize rallies around slogans like “Amerikkka is the world’s leading terrorist state” and “Palestine must be free from the river to the sea.” (Quite apart from our objections to these slogans’ propositional content, we thought they were pretty bad rhetorical devices for bringing people over to the antiwar side.) Of course, as I noted at the time, the harpies and warfloggers of the right would have demonized the antiwar movement even if it had been led by Miss Manners and Mister Rogers.  But that was no reason for progressives and liberals to keep quiet about the fact that a critical antiwar movement was hijacked from the outset by the hoary old neo-Stalinists of the Workers World Party.  Personally, I didn’t care what the harpies and warfloggers said.  I cared about what the undecideds thought.

Well, I’ll be saying more about all this at the Northwestern gig, where I’ll also be talking about Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism.  In the meantime, I’ll—oops!  Almost forgot!  Back in 2002, I was supposed to STFU when people like Ed Herman went after me . . . in the interest of left solidarity, of course.  And I’m not supposed to object to Ol’ Ed’s latest implication that I supported the war in Iraq, because that would be triangulating!

Very well.  I’ll be back tomorrow or Friday with something about the National Review instead.

Posted by Michael on 10/25 at 12:47 PM
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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Travels among the elite

On Friday I was speaking at SUNY-New Paltz, the university known in culture-wars circles as the place that launched Candace de Russy’s career as a professional wingnut.  Janet and Jamie came with me; the plan was for them to drop me off in New Paltz while they visited various Lyons in the great Lyon state of Connecticut.  But one detail after another went awry: my hotel lost my reservation, so my hosts put me up in a local B & B; Janet was too tired to drive the rest of the way at 10:30 pm on a Thursday, so we asked for a room that could accommodate the three of us; I learned that my B & B reservation was for only one night, even though I was also giving a presentation on Saturday; and so on.

But the B & B was beautiful, and the pair of talks on Friday seemed to go well.  Janet and Jamie left that morning and promptly got stuck behind an accident on I-87 that transformed their 90-minute trip into a three-hour trip, but they eventually arrived safely.  And I was treated to a lovely dinner and driven to a gorgeous lodge in the mountains for my Friday night stay.

The point of this post, however, is the ensuing Saturday Adventure.  I told my hosts that I would need to leave the faculty retreat by 1 to catch a 1:30 train in Poughkeepsie, and they assured me this was no problem.  My plan was to hop the MetroNorth down to Grand Central, grading papers all the way, then catch another train to New Haven, grading papers all the way.  At noon, however, I was informed that someone was driving to New York and would be happy to take me.  “Uh,” I replied, “thanks, but I don’t really want a ride—I was planning on grading papers on the train.”

“Great,” came the reply.  “You can leave with him just after 12.”

“Well, no,” I persisted, “if someone could just drop me off at the station in Poughkeepsie. . . .”

But that was the problem, of course: no one could drop me off at Poughkeepsie.  So I wound up being driven to New York and chatting along the way with three very personable and entertaining young faculty members from New Paltz as they went down to the city for various fun weekend things.  It occurred to me, as we inched along behind an accident on New Jersey’s route 17, that I had not had breakfast, and that I was now missing lunch; it also occurred to me that I wasn’t grading any papers, either.  So when the New Paltz crew stopped at one of those New Jersey package stores that are about half as expensive as New York package stores (they were stocking up for Halloween parties), I got myself a block of Havarti cheese and ate a few slices of it as we made our way over the GW bridge.

But now my fellow travelers were late to their gig, so I suggested that instead of dropping me off at Grand Central, they could drop me off at Union Square on their way to their 4 pm thing.  I quickly learned, upon threading my way through the teeming masses of the Union Square markets, that my wheelie suitcase wasn’t securely closed; but after gathering up the student papers that had fallen onto the sidewalk (none of which, I am happy to say, were trampled underfoot), I completed that leg of the trip without incident, and caught the 4:07 to New Haven.  And graded a few papers.

By six I was good and hungry.  Unfortunately, however, I was informed by the Lyon train-pickup crew in New Haven that we would be going first to Fashionista, the bargain vintage-clothing place run by Janet’s younger sister Todd.  Very well, I knew what that meant—an unspecified and unspecifiable amount of time trying things on and having a good old time.  For Janet and Jamie and the rest of the crew, that is.  (I should add that Jamie got himself a porkpie hat in which he looks terrific, and that he wore it to school today.) But by seven I was getting a bit restless, not to mention faint with hunger.  So Todd gave us directions to Thali, a fine Indian restaurant downtown, and promised to meet us all there once she closed up shop.

I had my doubts about showing up at a downtown restaurant at 7:30 on a Saturday night and asking for a table for seven, and you know what?  My doubts were well-founded.  One of our party attempted to order drinks at the bar while we waited for the rest of the crew, but I rudely insisted that I was, in fact, interested in eating some actual food sooner rather than later, for although I had eaten food on Friday, I remained curious as to whether I would eat any real food on Saturday.

When Todd arrived, she assured me that there were many restaurants within walking distance, which indeed there were: a Chinese place down the block with many open tables, and a Japanese place across the street that was packed to the rafters.  Todd and Janet, being Todd and Janet, preferred the Japanese place, because it would be more complicated.  Actually they argued that it would be more fabulous, and Todd, who reviews restaurants, knows whereof she speaks.  The extra complication was just a side benefit.

So Todd went to speak to the owner of Miso, the Japanese place, telling him that she had a party of seven including one very grumpy hungry nasty man, and asking him if he could squeak us in.  The kind soul assured Todd that he could find us a table in about ten or fifteen minutes, which I took to mean “please stay in my restaurant and order drinks for an unspecified and unspecifiable amount of time.” But lo!  The kind soul was truly a kind soul, for, taking pity on my now feeble and withered frame, he showed me to a seat at the far end of the bar and promised me a nice bowl of miso soup to tide me over.

Well, that was right neighborly, I thought.  And as I took my seat at the end of the bar, what—or, rather, who—did I see, sitting not fifteen feet from me over my right shoulder?

image

“If that’s not John Bolton,” I said sotto voce to my sister-in-law Sarah, “he’s got a bunch of Halloween gigs coming up, working as a John Bolton double.”

But, in fact, it was John Bolton.  Yes, my day’s long and winding road had led me to a seat right next to a member of his security detail.  For it was Parents Weekend at Yale, and from what I could gather, Ambassador Bolton and his wife were taking the occasion to dine out with their daughter.

Well, as you might imagine, now I was really pissed off.  First, and most obviously, because Ambassador Bolton did not hail me and proceed to grant me an exclusive interview, as he did with one of the right wing’s most notoriously lunatic bloggers when he should have been . . . oh, I don’t know, doing a heckuva job in Lebanon or something.

But most of all, I was angry that Ambassador Bolton was sending his child to a bastion of leftist orthodoxy like Yale—a school which, as you’ll remember, once refused a generous $20 million dollar gift simply because it would have required the university to teach the Great Books for a change.  Eating at a fine Japanese restaurant in a Northeastern city, sending his kid to Yale—here was John Bolton, behaving just like a paid-up member of the liberal elite!  Behaving, to be more precise, just like me!

Yet more evidence, as if any were needed, that the Bush Administration is not truly conservative—and that America will not be safe (from terror, from immigrants, from Yale, from sushi) until we have truly truly conservative leadership in Washington.  For as Candace de Russy herself notes,

This country is now in a civil cultural war and the radical, secular, ‘progressive’ left may well destroy our traditional principles and institutions, and notably our education institutions, which is seminal to the rest of the institutions.

Indeed.  And which side is John Bolton really on?

Posted by Michael on 10/24 at 10:27 AM
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Monday, October 23, 2006

This blog

is observing a day of silence for Chris Clarke’s blog.

UPDATE:  Zeke has a new post up!  Welcome him back to the Googlenets.

Posted by Michael on 10/23 at 07:26 AM
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