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Thursday, October 12, 2006

October surprise

My students’ papers just came in, and that means . . . it’s time for a blogging hiatus!  I’ll be back with new material next Friday, but in the meantime I’ll post a series of golden oldies from this blog’s early years.  I might even put up an excerpt from Rhetorical Occasions, because I’ve been so remiss in the book-flogging department lately.  (Though I will point out, for the benefit of those people who find the whole book-flogging thing kind of obnoxious, that I have thus far refrained from switching on the special Internets technology that would register each visit to this site as a sale from Powells.  That’s right, just a click onto this blog and you could be getting a book in the mail within the week, delivered by a specially dedicated Internets tube!  But I won’t activate the device—at least not yet.)

Actually, blog book flogging is obnoxious only when it’s one’s own book being blog flogged.  So before I sign off for the week, I think I’ll flog someone else’s book for a change.  Here’s a choice excerpt from Laura Kipnis’s latest, The Female Thing:

So who actually gained over the last thirty years, the heyday of women’s much-vaunted expedition into the workforce?  As we see, the job market proved flexible enough to absorb women into its ranks with barely a hiccup, while suppressing salaries and quashing labor demands across the board.  The exhilarating women’s lib notion that women entering positions of economic and political power would somehow transform the character of existing social institutions turned out to be just wrong.  With hindsight, the question is whether something got left out of the political calculation along the way—quality-of-life issues, for instance. Or what kind of equity to aspire to.  But then why be surprised that feminism too succumbed to the winner-take-all logic of a winner-take-all economy with the oppositional edges smoothed down to suit the times.  Who doesn’t want to be a winner?*

As the contradictions continue to mount, now we hear that the real radicals are the crop of twenty-something Ivy-educated women leading the so-called opt-out revolution, which is the new code for moms staying at home with the kid instead of ascending the career track.  This is being presented as the brave new thing, with words like “choice” lobbed around just to twist the knife a little deeper for cranky old feminists, who used the word rather differently.  Somehow, as highly educated as these girls are, they don’t seem to have heard about the 50 percent divorce rate!  Somehow, they imagine that their husbands’ incomes—and loyalties—come with lifetime guarantees, thus no contingency plans for self-sufficiency will prove necessary!  Let’s hope they’re right.  (Somewhere Betty Friedan must be cackling—though recall that Friedan wrote before the advent of Prozac, which might have made all the difference for her generation of depressed stay-at-home moms, as we hope it will for their successors.)

* For the backstory on the backing down, consult Alice Echols’s Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75 on the break between feminists and the New Left, and the factionalism between liberal, socialist, and radical wings of the emerging women’s movement, all of which set the direction for future political calculations.

By the bye, I agree that everyone should consult Echols’s book.  As often as possible.  Great stuff, that.

And I see that Amanda has begun reading The Female Thing.  I do hope she keeps liking it as she goes, not least because I insisted to Laura that she really, really, really had to send Amanda a copy, or else.  Actually it didn’t take much persuading.  Because as anyone who’s read either Ms. Kipnis or Ms. Marcotte would know, the pairing is pretty obvious.

See you all when I’m finished grading papers.  In the meantime, the We Are All Detroit Tygers Burning Brightly in the Giant Nuclear Fireball Now party will keep the flame alive!  So to speak.

Posted by Michael on 10/12 at 11:55 AM
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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Talking to the son

At some point over the past couple of years, a reader might have written in to say, “hey Michael!  Every once in a while you tell stories about Jamie.  Don’t you have any stories about Nick?”

Why, yes I do!  Glad you might have asked, dear reader.  I mentioned the first part of this story deep in a comment thread about three months ago, but I’ll elaborate on it here, and then I’ll talk about poetry for a bit.

When I was a young father, hovering nervously over our firstborn, I wondered about many things.  Like when precisely Nick would acquire “object constancy,” the major philosophical leap in understanding whereby babies realize that the crackers you’ve hidden from them still exist in the cupboard.  And like how Nick would apprehend human diversity—to use a word much bandied about these days.  When he entered toddlerdom, would he classify humans by skin tone?  Eye color?  Hair?  Height?

None of the above, as it turned out.  When Nick began to group his fellow humans into grouplets, he wisely chose the only criterion that makes any real sense: the color of their shirts.  “Blue man!” two-year-old Nick would exclaim in the mall, pointing hither and yon.  “Orange woman!” One day I had an odd moment with him in the Food Lion in the south end of Charlottesville, as he pointed to a young black man wearing a black t-shirt and exclaimed, with toddler glee, “black man!” The black man in question gave Nick a quizzical look, since he was by no means the only black man within a five-mile radius, so I turned to him and said, “it’s your shirt.  I’m not kidding—” with a shrug of the shoulders—“he goes by people’s shirts.”

This was 1988, and back then, one of Janet’s many part-time jobs (in addition to that of graduate teaching assistant) involved running the study hall for Virginia’s football team.  Occasionally, she brought Nick to study hall for the evening.  Nick was a big hit among the players, particularly a talented freshman lineman named Ray Roberts, who always wore a red hoodie to study hall.  For this, Nick named him “red man” (surely you saw that one coming), greeting him with great enthusiasm every time he came in.  The other players did not fail to make a note of this, and ever after, Roberts was known to his fellow Cavaliers as Red Man.  Legend has it that the nickname (cough) followed him all the way to the NFL, when, in 1992, he was drafted in the first round by the Seattle Seahawks.

But over the next couple of years, Nick gradually learned more about race—and the history of race.  When he was four, I came upon him watching a bit of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and he peppered me with questions about slavery.  (I started by explaining that it involved people working without pay, and we gradually made our way up to the “ownership” bit and all the beliefs that made it possible for humans to justify owning other humans.) He was intensely curious about Abraham Lincoln as well, whose name he knew but of whose fate he had been unaware.  And wouldn’t you know it, that was the year that Champaign, Illinois thrashed out the question of whether the city would finally cave in to “political correctness” and agree to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  So not long after learning how Lincoln died, Nick learned how King died, and all without the help of that Richard Holler song.  In the space of a few days, then, Nick got the sense that there was something very, very wrong with the world he’d been born into, and he came to understand that some of the people who’d perceived its wrongness in the past got themselves shot and killed.

So one night I was putting him to bed, and decided to pull out of his bookcase a volume that my parents had given to him—the quite wonderful Talking to the Sun, edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell.  (The title itself has an interesting history, running from the quite wonderful Koch back to the quite wonderful Frank O’Hara.) Nick had a pretty high tolerance for poetry at the time, even (or especially) modern poetry, partly because he’d come across William Carlos Williams’s “The Great Figure” a year earlier—a poem that happily managed to combine the two things that completely obsessed little Nick and filled pages of his scrap paper and shadowed his every conscious moment: fire trucks and the number 5.  Yes, any form of human expression that addressed the critical issue of number 5s on fire trucks was more than OK by him.

We flipped through the book as I read Nick this poem and that, and suddenly we came upon the opening section of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” “Check this out!” I said to Nick.  But Nick wasn’t interested, because, as he said, there were too many words.  It would take too long to read!  It would be boring!

“Oh, it won’t be boring at all,” I promised.  “On the contrary, my friend.  When this poem came out, people were so surprised they didn’t know what to do with it.  It’s full of all kinds of weird stuff, and look—the lines just run on forever, right?  Like really excited speech.”

Nick was not impressed.  Long lines, weird stuff, no rhymes, so what?

“So what?” I exclaimed.  “So what? Listen, pal, if Walt Whitman hadn’t written this stuff you wouldn’t have your number 5 in gold on that fire truck!  This stuff is where modern American poetry began!  Why, when this poem appeared, there were people who didn’t think it was poetry at all!  They wanted to ban it and keep people from reading it, it was so amazing!  That’s so what!”

Nick thought about this for a few moments, frowning.  He tried to imagine a poem causing that kind of uproar.  Then he seemed to hit upon something, and turned to me, nodding darkly as if to say, I know what comes next.

“So they shot him?” Nick said.

Posted by Michael on 10/11 at 09:47 AM
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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Everybody wang chung tonight

Strangely, the AL and NL division series amount to I Love The 80s: the Tigers, who last won a World Series in 1984, face off against the A’s, who won the Earthquake Series of 1989 after collapsing in 1988; and the Mets, who managed to get by the Red Sox despite losing the first two at home in 1986 (I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any clips of game six of that series), take on the Cardinals, who won the Watery Beer Series of 1982 and lost in seven in 1985 and 1987.

I propose that each team be paired with an immortal classic from the list of Top 100 Songs for its championship year.  To wit:

From the soul-crushingly abysmal year of 1982, the Cardinals can choose to be represented by Deniece Williams’s entirely appropriate “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” (# 87), America’s “You Can Do Magic” (# 29), or, if they’re really into the inspirational-instrumental thing, Vangelis’s “Chariots of Fire” (# 21).

From the mind-numbingly dismal year of 1984, the Tigers can go with Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” (# 90), Survivor’s “I Can’t Hold Back” (# 68), or Phil Collins’s searing, hauntingly evocative “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” (# 8, ye gods).

From the world-historically abominable year of 1986 (redeemed for me in other ways, however, by the Birth of the First Child), the Mets can pick from among Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch” (# 73), Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” (# 22, and often cited on this blog as a Perfect Paradox Song, insofar as it is physically impossible to have fun while the song is playing, just as—as Janet points out—it is physically impossible to dance to Orleans’ “Dance with Me”), or Lionel Richie’s bitter, disillusioned “Dancing on the Ceiling” (# 36).

And finally, from the rather-interestingly transitional year of 1989, the A’s can treat themselves to Jody Watley’s “Real Love” (# 58), Prince’s “Batdance” (# 47), or Young MC’s “Bust a Move” (# 10).  Yes, I know, Phil Collins is still in there—at # 1, no less.  And no less than five Bobby Brown songs from Bobby’s pre-psychosis period!  The inimitable Milli Vanilli!  Mike and the Mechanics’ even-worse-than-Lionel-Richie “The Living Years”!  Clearly this was a year when all kinds of geopolitical binaries were beginning to crumble.

On the basis of these lineups, I have good news for Oaktown Girl: it’s the A’s over the Mets, in a replay of the 1973 Series.  And just you wait ‘til I mine the top 100 from that year!


Completely unrelated public service announcement: members of the American Historical Association are invited to sign a resolution opposing the use of speech codes to restrict academic freedom.  Apparently the drafters need a few more signers in order to put the resolution on the AHA’s agenda for the January business meeting, so if you’re a current member of the AHA and are of a mind, stop by and help out.  I got no dog in this one myself, not being a member of the AHA, but if you’re interested in the debate behind the resolution, you can check out this and that and the other thing.

Posted by Michael on 10/10 at 11:41 AM
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Monday, October 09, 2006

Weekend in review

So you’re probably thinking that the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now party will hail President Bush’s masterful campaign to convince certain rogue nations that they must acquire nuclear weapons in order to repel invasions: scuttle an international framework for containment, then talk like a tough hombre, then do nothing, then dispatch the Katrina Crisis Management Team for emergency photo ops.  Well, the WAAGNFN is not placated by these half-measures.  While we applaud Bush supporters who mocked John Kerry for arguing that nuclear proliferation, rather than IslamahomoMexifascist terror, was the most serious problem facing the world, we are not an incrementalist party.  We care little for these “tests.” We therefore denounce the We Will Settle for a Series of Small Nuclear Fireballs Here and There party for their enthusiasm over North Korea’s nuclear test, and we await the final, clarifying conflagration.

In the meantime, here are some sneak previews of David Brooks’s New York Times Budweiser Select columns for the remainder of October:

● Liberals feign outrage over Mark Foley’s courtship of underage Congressional pages, but millions of them laughed uproariously when Captain Oveur in Airplane!, played by Peter Graves, asked little Joey if he liked to watch movies about gladiators!

● Liberals feign outrage over the GOP leadership’s coverup of Foley’s behavior, but dozens of them went to see Bob Guccione’s movie Caligula twenty-seven years ago, and you didn’t hear them squawking about corruption then!

● Liberals feign outrage at conservative critics who blame the pages themselves for the Foley scandal, and yet every year, thousands of them teach Plato’s Symposium!

● Liberals feign outrage at the Wall Street Journal for blaming the Foley scandal on the powerful gay cabal that has intimidated the GOP into cowed silence on the subject of pedophilia or homosexuality well what’s the difference anyway, but they never said a word when George Eliot published The Mill on the Floss!

● Liberals feign outrage grapple stark combustion, but when Bill Clinton leased the Teapot Dome naval oil reserves to Susan McDougall, they trestled festivities on every watercress fibula!

Stay tuned to this blog for updates!

Posted by Michael on 10/09 at 08:10 AM
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Friday, October 06, 2006

ABF Friday:  It’s Party Time!

I’m pleased to report that the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now party is expanding like a . . . like a . . . well, like a giant nuclear fireball!  I’m sorry I haven’t been able to do any serious blogging or commenting this week, but I’ve been extremely busy with New Nihilist party-building politics.  First things first, I have concentrated on destroying the parties closest to mine.  Before I gear up to take on the corporate shills and kleptocrats of the behemoth I Don’t Know, Things Could Be Worse party, I have to delegitimate the waverers and the fellow travelers over at the odiously chirpy There Might Still Be a Sliver of Hope party and the reprehensibly meliorist It Wasn’t Worth Getting Out of Bed Today, But It Might Be Worth Getting Out of Bed Tomorrow party.

So while I’m doing that, this blog will hold its first-ever recruiting drive.  To join the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now party, and achieve the serenity and peace of mind promised by our name and elaborated in our platform (which includes a plank of yummy irradiated Copper River salmon), simply follow the lovely and talented Oaktown Girl’s suggestion in comment 48 of this thread, and finish the sentence,

One of the more pleasant aspects of a giant nuclear fireball that consumes all life on earth is…

There’s only one proviso: you must use your captcha word in the completed sentence.  You’re on the honor system, of course, though I remind you that Foucault’s Lidless Eye sees all.  And what if your captcha word is “aspects” or “fireball”?  When life gives you radioactive lemons (or antlers!), just make radioactive lemonade (or antlerade!).

And have a great New Nihilist weekend!

Posted by Michael on 10/06 at 11:57 AM
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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Liberal Thursday III

OK, so at least a couple of you are already aware that What’s Liberal got itself a substantial and kinda condescending and dismissive review in the New York Observer.  It was written by Jonathan Liu, a senior at Harvard, and from what I can gather in yesterday’s comments section, some of you were put off by the review’s closing move:

On issues like race and class, he writes, “my classes contain plenty of students who are more outspokenly ‘liberal’ and/or left-leaning than myself …. [It] doesn’t occur to [conservatives] that some of their demonized liberal faculty members have our share of undergraduates who find us not liberal enough for their tastes.”

What never occurs to Michael Bérubé is that these “more outspoken” students might finally be objecting to the same impulse as the conservatives, the same “procedural liberalism” that results in a tenured professor like Mr. Bérubé constantly worrying about offending his students. The truth is, college liberal-arts students aren’t much impressed with friendly professors who talk about popular music and are adept at playing devil’s advocate. To the contrary, we seek out those—liberal, conservative or otherwise—with passion, who will fight and intimidate and humiliate us in order to impart their scholarly revelations, who don’t treat us like the equals we aren’t, who will leave us defeated but challenged and finally emboldened.

So let me set you all straight about two things before anyone comes rushing to my defense or running up with a crying towel to assuage my hurt feelings.  One, the premise of this passage is entirely true.  This is my twenty-second year of teaching, and it never has occurred to me that my more outspoken students are objecting to my liberal-proceduralist m.o. because they prefer being fought and intimidated and humiliated, defeated and challenged and finally emboldened.  In fact, not a single one of my thousand-plus students has ever faulted me for not being challenging enough.  So this is a new one on me.  Live and learn.

Two, having said that, let me add that I wish I had a whole mess of students like Mr. Liu.  He didn’t much care for my book: so what?  He’s smart and energetic and sounds like a great interlocutor.  Though his review is dismissive in places—particularly in its last paragraph, which weighs me in the balance and finds me “overwhelmed by self-doubt” and “caring, fastidious and totally forgettable”—it’s one of the more interesting dismissals I’ve come across.  And I don’t actually think it’s possible to argue people into liking my work, anyway.  I believe Flannery O’Connor put it best when she wrote:

“Everybody is different,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“Yes, most people is,” Mrs. Freeman said.
“It takes all kinds to make the world.”
“I always said it did myself.”

So I wouldn’t use this here blog to try to persuade Mr. Liu himself that he is mistaken, or to demonstrate that when I’m not being caring, fastidious, and totally forgettable, I’m actually being rude, snarky, and thuggish—often right here on this very blog!  I’m simply going to point out two or three ways in which Mr. Liu mischaracterizes the book’s actual contents.

Thing one:

Mr. Bérubé—both a committed Democrat and a committed democrat, not to mention a former rock musician and a current blogger—is never quite able to describe what exactly he’s defending.

Well, it’s prima facie true that I was unable to describe what I’m defending in such a way as to convince Mr. Liu that I had done so.  But I think it all depends on just how carefully you read my brief for participatory parity and pragmatist pluralism in chapter six, or my brief for the intellectual independence of universities in a pluralist civil society in chapters one and seven.  If, like Mr. Liu, you write off chapter six in half of a subordinate clause as dealing with “the anti-foundationalist possibilities of postmodernism,” then you’ll very likely write off my entire argument about antifoundationalism as a basis (though much depends on what one means by a “basis”) for belief and action. Eric Rauchway got this point, I’m greatly relieved to say, as did Aaron Barlow.  Mr. Liu is well within his rights to say that I didn’t make it well, or didn’t make it convincingly; that’s entirely possible.  But I don’t think he’s justified in claiming that I didn’t make it at all.

But then, much of the review is devoted to claims that I didn’t make this or that argument.  For instance, Mr. Liu writes:

having divided conservatives into the “extreme” and the “thoughtful,” it seems plainly bizarre for Mr. Bérubé not to engage more fully—or at all—with the allegations of the latter group. Mr. Douthat’s recent memoir Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class would have been a good place to start; his scathing portrait of his alma mater (he’s class of ’02) belongs to a critical tradition that began with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and reached its apotheosis with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

The deep conservative grievance—repeated with generational variations in each of those three volumes—is simple: In an environment dominated by “electives” and binge-drinking, American higher education is no longer a force that gives students meaning. Young adults stumble out of colleges bewildered and strangely unfulfilled, and what the eminently likable Mr. Bérubé fails to appreciate is that this melancholy is in no way limited to the conservatives.

I’ll admit that when the book’s publication date loomed near, I was afraid I’d get reviews like this: Bérubé says nothing about how college athletics have eroded our moral fiber, Bérubé says nothing about the rapacious student-loan industry, Bérubé never once addresses the demand for ‘accountability’ in educational outcomes. Because it’s true, I don’t address any of those things (two of which are worth addressing), and people who open my book thinking that it is my obligation to write about them if I’m writing about higher education will surely find me to be a coward or a failure.  And when it comes to those stumbling, unfulfilled college graduates, I explicitly wrote that I have a “profound distrust” of “professors (and dapper seventy-something novelists) who speak as if they know all about students’ lives, spiritual strivings, personal habits, and complicated family dramas.” So I’m no help on that score, either.

But what am I to say about binge drinking?  I do mention it in the book, and I say that all the awful things you’ve heard about drinking on campus are true.  I honestly don’t know what to do about it.  And as for the elective system: Mr. Liu writes, “We regrettably never learn what Mr. Bérubé thinks about conservative concerns over ‘grade inflation’ or the calls to adopt ‘Great Books’ core curricula. Both are nuanced issues, ones that might attract a surprising number of Marxists or even Derrideans over to the ‘right-wing’ side.” Fair enough.  I did not enfold my various defenses of Western Civ courses into What’s Liberal?, and in retrospect I think this was a mistake.  I’ve written in favor of core curricula in Dissent, the Common Review, Slate, and a couple of other places, and I guess I didn’t think I needed to stump for them again—or to make the point (obvious on campus, but almost always obscured by the anti-academic right) that Great Books and Western Civ courses are most strenuously resisted, on campuses like mine, not by the feral multicultural Theory Left but by the engineering, preprofessional, and business administration wings of the enterprise.  This was a missed opportunity, I think.

But there’s something tonally awry about Mr. Liu’s complaint that I should have tried to appeal to conservatives on this count, because the most serious charge in his review is that I “haphazardly triangulate” by distinguishing myself from all conservatives and a handful of leftists.  And to try to make that charge stick, Mr. Liu has to contort the book a bit—but only a bit, because, as you all know very well, I really do distinguish myself from a handful of leftists.  I disagree with them, and they disagree with me.  It takes all kinds to make the world!

Let’s get back to Mr. Liu’s description of my descriptions of my courses:

On topics ranging from Willa Cather’s supposed “queer[ing] of the prairie” to the anti-foundationalist possibilities of postmodernism, Mr. Bérubé reveals himself to be an easy-going pedagogue, always ready to play devil’s advocate—even, he loves pointing out, to the liberal students.

Well, if I love pointing this out, you’d think that I might do it more than once.  But I don’t.  The passage Mr. Liu is referring to here, oddly enough, is the same passage he refers to at the end of his review, when he quotes me saying that “my classes contain plenty of students who are more outspokenly ‘liberal’ and/or left-leaning than myself.” The episode involved a student who said to me, after a class in which I’d jump-started a discussion of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by talking about Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about Donovan McNabb, that I should have said in so many words that Limbaugh’s remarks were racist.

That’s it.  That’s the one time I mention an encounter with a liberal student who wanted me to be more “outspoken” than I was.  It takes up two paragraphs in chapter five, in which I write,

Sometimes, when I read conservatives’ accounts of campus life and classroom “intimidation,” I wonder, what’s happening with the liberal students on American campuses?  Don’t they ever feel uncomfortable?  Don’t they ever make their professors uncomfortable?  I’ve begun to suspect that for some critics on the right, it’s a mystery why liberals exist at all:  they sometimes speak as if no one, left to his or her devices, would wind up as a liberal but for professorial indoctrination and brainwashing.

In the rest of the book, I narrate at much greater length my dealings with two students who were, for very different reasons, deeply antagonistic to me: John, to whose defense of the WW2 internment camps I responded by reminding him that when we’d discussed black nationalism he’d insisted that we’re all Americans first and hyphenated-Americans second; and Stan, who responded passionately and combatively to the Rorty-and-pragmatism part of the postmodernism class, believing that antifoundationalism licensed precisely the kind of moral relativism that had corrupted our society.  I’m kind of surprised that someone like Mr. Liu, who clearly favors professors who antagonize and challenge their students, would ignore these whole stretches of the book in favor of the one moment in which a student told me I should have been more emphatically anti-Rush.

One more thing while we’re talking about triangulation.  Because I know I’m going to hear a lot more about this from people to my left, oh yes.

Some of his colleagues, he’s appalled to admit, are so far to the left that they don’t even like being associated with the thoughtful liberals; regarding l’affaire Churchill, he writes of “a smattering of academics [who] decided that because the ‘academic freedom’ defense was a ‘liberal’ position, they needed to go further and defend the specific content of the ‘little Eichmanns’ line …. [M]ost of them, I am now convinced, took this vile position chiefly in order to distinguish themselves from the mere ‘liberals’ to their right.”

There seems to be a bit of, as they say in academia, projection going on here. Because, of course, all the talk of “vile positions” is finally chiefly a way for Mr. Bérubé to distinguish himself from the despicables to his left. Sure, comparing 9/11 victims to the architect of the Holocaust is viscerally repellent, and there might be no other way for the general public to take it. But academics who defended the content of Mr. Churchill’s argument might have had any number of reasons to do so—anyone who has read Hannah Arendt’s haunting, ambiguous Eichmann in Jerusalem, for instance, would immediately find an allusive depth to the now-infamous Churchill quote that perhaps even its author never intended. Mr. Bérubé, however, seems to believe that any such “extreme” position is just so much grandstanding vis-à-vis his own common sense, free-speech-even-for-the- repellent liberalism.

When I read this yesterday, my first, visceral response was this: far from using the Churchill fans as a foil for my sensible liberalism, I sometimes do way too much covering for the Churchill fans, on whatever point of our multiple orthogonal axes they might be.  In this case, I didn’t reproduce any textual evidence of some of the many online discussions I had with people in the course of 2005 (including professional committee discussions I can’t divulge here), discussions in which they made precisely the argument I attribute to them: the liberal defense of Ward Churchill did not go far enough because it allowed those craven liberals to defend Churchill’s right to speak without endorsing the specific content of his remarks, so therefore we need to endorse the specific content of his remarks in order to make this a “teaching moment” for our fellow Americans, to stand up against Bill O’Reilly, to applaud Churchill’s heroism, etc.

But my second, more reflective response was this: you know, I probably did botch this one.  I thought my book parsed Churchill’s remarks reasonably carefully, in that milquetoasty liberal way I have.  I agreed that

the blowback argument, by itself, is an intellectually legitimate argument; there is no doubt that the US funded the Afghan mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, just as there is no question that U.S. support for Israel has generated a great deal of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

And I pointed out, riffing off of Sidney Hook, that

academic freedom covers even the most noxious heresies when they stem from honest pursuit of an inquiry or argument (and grotesque as it may sound to some ears, the question of whether there can be such a thing as “collective guilt” among the citizens of a superpower is indeed an inquiry).

But I didn’t make it clear that the “academic freedom” defense of Churchill is indeed more specific and robust than the “freedom of speech” defense, insofar as it speaks to the legitimacy of his remarks as a matter of professional principle rather than as a general right to say vile things in an open society.  Churchill was and is, in other words, entitled as an academic—quite apart from his rights as a citizen—to make the claim that all Americans share in the responsibility for the crimes our nation commits abroad (except, as he helpfully explained later, “the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by.” They’re off the hook).  I happen to believe that he answered the question of collective national responsibility so reductively as to undermine the inquiry, but still, I should have explained the difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech more clearly.

Anyway, let’s end on a happy note, because it’s been a crazy week so far.

What’s Liberal fails to answer (or even to pose) the broader question: Why is Mr. Horowitz—himself a New York Jew, a former New Leftist with degrees from Columbia and Berkeley—more appealing to backwoods citizens and lawmakers than the friendly neighborhood academics among them?

This is an elegant misframing of the question.  For the funny thing is that Mr. Horowitz himself is not very appealing: the reason the Georgia legislature didn’t pass his Academic Bill of Rights, after all, was that Horowitz made the mistake of showing up in person and convincing Georgia lawmakers “they were dealing with a crazy man.” The real question is why hatred and distrust of American universities is so pervasive on the right wing as a whole, and I humbly submit that my book does indeed attempt to pose—and answer—that one.  Though not, I (liberally) admit, to everyone’s satisfaction.

Posted by Michael on 10/05 at 12:53 PM
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