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Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Posted by Michael on 01/09 at 08:12 AM
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Monday, January 08, 2007

Til we meet again

So today’s the last day of this humble blog’s existence—though I hear there might be some fireworks here tomorrow (and of course I’ll keep all the archives available).  Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by in the past week to pay respects, offer condolences, ask me to keep at it, or just say hello.

I started blogging three years and one day ago by describing my life a bit and remarking that I wasn’t sure I had the time to work in this medium.  I’m surprised that I kept it up for this long.

In retrospect, the early days of this blog were not so good, in bloggy terms.  I’m still fond of this little item, which put me on the map almost from the start (thanks to a link from Eric Alterman) and got me my first regular readership of about 500 visitors per day.  And I liked this somewhat similar item enough to re-run it earlier this year.  But I didn’t really know what I was doing; I continued working on a 56k modem until March 30, 2004, and I didn’t have the sense to turn on the comments until May 10 (that post also works as a kind of Guide to the Early Blog in itself).  In the end, I think it took me about six or eight months to begin to get the hang of this thing.

And then the next two years were so much fun!  We made so many wonderful new friends and enemies, with the friends:enemies ratio running at a healthy 9:1.  (I note with puzzlement that three of my daffiest and wackiest detractors—Kirby Olson, Dr. Jacques Albert, and “et alia”—all did their graduate work in literary study at the University of Washington.  Something in the water out there?) Then this summer I began to flag, though I had some of the best bloggers on the planet as guest bloggers (thanks again to Lance, Amanda, Lindsay, and Chris) and though I did enjoy writing the long Yeats and Beckett posts.  So I actually first began thinking about retiring from blogging back in September—but I decided I would at least try to make it through the midterm elections.  Then in late October John Holbo announced that November would be Liberalpalooza Month, and, well, I figured it would just be rude beyond belief to sign off in the middle of a huge Valve Book Event dedicated to What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? So I decided to start winding things down in December instead, with the help of Oaktown Girl and the entire Ministry of Justice of the We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party.  But then I was nominated for the prestigious title of Best Educationesque Blog on the Internets, and dammit, just when I tried to get out, they pulled me back in.  And so on and so forth.  I finally decided, while I was down in Virginia Beach for Round One of Momcare® last month (Round Two begins today—by the time you read this I’ll be travelin’ Momward), that I would stick it out ‘til my third blogging anniversary.  And so here I am.

Over the Christmas Molochmas break I gave Scott McLemee the official version of why I’m retiring: like a good member of the Party, I have a five-year plan.  And in those five years, before my hockey skills desert me at last, I intend to complete two more books, The Left at War and Narrative and Disability.  After that, Jamie will be out of high school, and as I told Scott, whatever arrangements we make for him then will be vastly different than the arrangement we have now. (Anyone who wants to consider Jamie for employment in an aquarium or marine science center, please let me know between now and 2012.  Thank you.) Jamie and I have talked about working together on a sequel to Life As We Know It, and he says he’s up for it.  More specifically, he says “cool!” So I have plenty of dead-tree plans in my future.

But I didn’t tell Scott the real reason I’m retiring the blog, which is this: I’ve now taken the medium as far as it can go.  I feel it’s too constrained, too limiting.  My new project for 2007 will involve v-casting my enormous looming ghostly head directly into your living room so that I can harangue you and your loved ones at any hour of the day.  This new form will also be available in eight-track format with a “citizens’ band.” And we hope you like our new direction!

Damn.  I’ve used that Spinal Tap joke before, too.  You know how it feels when you think you’re just repeating yourself over and over again?

OK, so let me try to answer the most serious question I’ve gotten about this decision: why not just cut down?  Post something under 2000 words for a change?  Post once a week or once a month, instead of maniacally posting every weekday?

These are good questions.  In fact, I went around the MLA two weeks ago introducing myself to people as “Michael Blogtoomuch of Penn State University,” and people kept saying, “Blogtoomuch—well, you’d better cut down a little then.” I didn’t get it at first.  Finally when I heard it at the Postmodern Culture party it came to me:  Blog too much so I’d better cut down a little then!  Right!

I’ve tried that, actually, but it doesn’t work.  Blog maintenance on this scale is a daily, sometimes hourly thing, regardless of whether there’s a new post up.  And even if I didn’t try to maintain the blog on this scale (a good idea in itself), there’s still the problem of the invisible blogging.  I don’t write these posts out in advance, you know.  I sit down for an hour or two (more for the really long posts), write them in one take in WordPerfect, look ‘em over, transfer ‘em to the blog, preview, edit, submit, and then proofread one last time once they’re up.  (Because sometimes you can’t catch a typo until it’s really up there on the blog, and even then, I’ve missed a bunch so far.) Which means, among other things, that I do a great deal of the planning-before-the-writing while I’m not blogging.  And that’s what’s been so mentally exhausting.  It’s like ABC from Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Composing.  And while it’s been great mental exercise, and it’s compelled me to think out (and commit myself in public to) any number of things that otherwise would have laid around the mental toolshed for years, it’s not the kind of thing I can keep up forever, and it wouldn’t be seriously affected if I went to a lighter posting schedule.  I’d still spend way too much time thinking about the Next Post and the Post After That.

Anyway, I won’t give up the mental exercise altogether.  I have a new essay coming out one of these days in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and a 3000-word review essay of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s What Should the Left Propose? appearing in the next issue of Dissent.  Those of you who’ve been waiting for Installment VI of Theory Tuesday, the Introduction to Stuart Hall, can rest assured that it’ll appear as a chapter of The Left At War.  And, of course, I’ll also be writing any number of things for any number of venues, except of course when I get rejections.  Fie on those rejections!

So, dear friends and assorted enemies in a healthy 9:1 ratio, thanks for helping to make these three years of blogging so edifying.  I still think this here blogosphere is a great venue for public intellectual work, and I’m deeply grateful to all the blogging liberals and progressives and lefties who decided they’d had it up to here with the “liberal” opinion industry of Joe Klein and Richard Cohen and Peter Beinart and decided to take matters into their own hands.  I’ll be reading you all for as long as you keep writing.  And don’t forget to look for my pseudonymous comments on those blogs!  I’ll be the guy who sounds like me.

Oh, and Jamie will be here to take your calls.  Yeah, I know I’ve posted this picture before (it’s from the 2005 conference of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society), but it’s one of my favorites.  ‘Bye, everyone.

Posted by Michael on 01/08 at 09:23 AM
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Sunday, January 07, 2007


One day twenty-two years ago I ran into one of the Lawn Preachers at the University of Virginia.  The Lawn Preachers were a shock when I first encountered them; I had just come from Columbia (well, with a year off to earn the money to attend graduate school for a little while in the first place—I didn’t have me no fellowship), and I was under the impression that a campus should be ringed by feuding members of the Fourth International.  This is not a joke.  Columbia was indeed ringed by members of the Socialist Workers Party, the Spartacist League, and the Revolutionary Youth Brigade, among others.  I hung out with one of these grouplets for a month or two until I realized that their most hated foes were the Spartacists, on the grounds that the Spartacists had refused to denounce the leader of the SWP as a CIA plant.  The Lawn Preachers, by contrast, were feuding varieties of evangelical Christians, and they had come to Mr. Jefferson’s “academical village” to spread the Word in the very den of iniquity itself, the American college campus.  Some of them were loud enough to be heard in adjacent classrooms, and occasionally someone would complain about this; the university replied, back in the mid-80s, that they could not compel the Lawn Preachers to preach someplace other than on the Lawn because it was a free speech issue.  Very well and good, I thought at the time, wondering if the university would have been so ecumenical if the Lawn Preachers had been a couple of loud, audible-in-class Trotskyites.

Anyway, so one of them followed me for a few steps one day and asked if I had heard the Word.  Now, back then I was usually inclined to reply, “why, no I haven’t, brother—but have you read American Power and the New Mandarins?  Here’s a free copy for your very own.” But on this day, I was feeling kind of annoyed with the world in general, and so I said, “why, yes—as a matter of fact I studied the Bible rigorously with Jesuits for four years at Regis High School.  We read Norman Perrin on the textual sources of the New Testament and were introduced to Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth.” I’d intended to make his hair fly back in horror, but he didn’t miss a beat.  On the contrary, he followed me all the way home (back then I lived just off the main campus), and in the course of our fifteen-minute conversation, this is what we said.

He asked if I had joined the Jesuits; I replied that I was, in fact, an agnostic.  This confirmed his sense (as he said) that the Jesuits were the last group a Christian encounters on his way out.  Ha ha ha, I said.  He asked why I’d left the faith; I told him I’d never really had much faith to begin with, but that my parents, agnostics themselves, had convinced me that the intellectual and religious history of Christianity was well worth knowing.  After a few months at Regis, I quickly came to agree.  But once I’d studied the New Testament, I came to the tentative conclusion that it was a mistake to think that Christ had meant “this really is my body” as opposed to “this is a symbol of my body.” Luther, I decided, had the drop on the Church on that one.  So much for transubstantiation.  (What about John 6:53-58? I was once asked.  Isn’t Jesus quite clear that the flesh and blood of the Eucharist are literally his flesh and blood?  Sure enough, I admitted, but John 6:53-58 is a belated interpretive gloss on the Last Supper, not a corroboration of it; the Book of John was written some thirty to fifty years after the synoptic gospels, and is especially concerned about the unbelief of the Jews, ahem ahem, filled with Jesus’ proclamations of his own divinity.  Note that Christ’s insistence on the flesh and blood of the Eucharist comes just after John’s retelling of the fishes and loaves story in 6:1-14.)

Well, then, the preacher asked, if you rejected the belief in transubstantiation, why didn’t you become a Protestant?  Good question, I replied.  Because, basically, you folks are all bollixed up when it comes to the question of good works, and you’re not that clear about grace either.  Sure, I understand that you can’t have an omniscient diety who’s up there wondering if you’re going to stop and help the old woman across the street.  But you know, even the Puritans believed that justification (grace) must be accompanied by sanctification (works).  Outward and visible signs and all that: the person’s works help to testify, in an ex post facto kinda way, to the person’s state of grace.  But if you believe that, then you really shouldn’t ever go around in the “conviction” that you are saved.  The state of grace is completely unearned, and it’s not for us to declare ourselves to be among the Elect.  I don’t understand how Christians can be so damn presumptuous about this.  I mean, it’s like saying, “of course we cannot know the mind of God, for His ways are not our ways—but just between you and me, we have a pretty good idea of who’s damned and who’s saved.”

And what’s with the damnation and salvation, anyway?  You’re really going to tell me that a just and merciful God is going to consign someone who’s led a blameless life to an eternity of torment and pain just because she believed the Host was the body or because he had doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity?  Or because she didn’t consume the Host at all and didn’t care what it was?  Run the “just and merciful” part by me again, please.

The preacher tried to back me up a few steps further, to the part about how we cannot know the mind of God, His ways are not our ways, etc., whereupon I said, look.  I like this caritas and agape idea.  That was a good idea.  I like the bit about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  That was a good idea.  I like the idea of treating the least of our species as if he or she were the moral equal of the most powerful person on earth. That was a good idea.  But the history of your religion, I’m sorry to say, looks like a history in which some of the finest legal minds in the West set about festooning those central beliefs with all manner of pernicious nonsense about transubstantiation and consubstantiation and the three-personed God and the Virgin Birth.  Not to mention the Ascension and the Assumption.  See, I’m a graduate student in literary criticism.  So I just love the idea that centuries worth of brilliance went into developing the idea of type and antitype, figura and fulfillment, in order to reconcile the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  But when it comes to the question of how to live in the world, I’ll take the caritas-and-agape part and leave the pointless doctrinal disputes to you-all.

So you really don’t care whether Christ was divine? the preacher asked.  You really don’t care if your immortal soul is at stake?

Well, that’s exactly the point, isn’t it, I said, stopping at the corner of my block.  See, if I’m hearing you correctly, the insights about caritas and agape and the human dignity of the meek and the wretched of the earth make sense if and only if Christ was divine.  If he was just a guy, you’re saying, then those insights are just ordinary human utterances with no special claim on our attention.  Whereas I think they’re worth pursuing regardless of whether the guy who delivered them to us was a deity or the son of a deity or part of a mysteriously tripartite deity or just a guy.  I honestly don’t care what you believe about Jesus.  All I care about is how you act while you’re here.

And your soul, he said.  You don’t care if you lose your immortal soul in that belief.

Right, here’s the way I look at it, I said.  If you’re right about this and I’m wrong, then you and I agree that we have the obligation to treat others as we would have them treat us, but because I believe that we humans just made that up one day, I’m going to Hell for an eternity, and you’re pretty much in the clear.  Whereas if I’m right about this and you’re wrong, my beliefs don’t visit any punishments on you.  We live, we act as best we can, we die, end of story, except that we hope that maybe some of the good we do on earth will live after us for a little while.  And that’s it.

Well, the Lawn Preacher said, I can’t say I’ve ever heard the argument for agnosticism put that way before.

Dang, that’s a shame, I said.  Because lots of us agnostics have a coherent moral code.  We just don’t feel the need to ascribe our moral code to a supernatural being.  We don’t think that solves anything, honestly.

He did not say he would pray for me.  I liked that.  He simply nodded, extended his hand, and wished me well.  I shook his hand, thanked him sincerely for hearing me out, and wished him well in return.

Posted by Michael on 01/07 at 12:22 PM
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Saturday, January 06, 2007

More old business

OK, it’s the last Saturday of this blog, and time to get back to Mark Bauerlein.  Here’s the relevant snippet from his Chronicle of Higher Education essay:

In What’s Liberal ... ?, conservatism suffers similarly from stigmatizing references. Bérubé focuses on the anti-academic conservatives and fills his descriptions with diagnostic asides. Gay-rights debates “transform otherwise reasonable cultural conservatives into fumbling, conspiracy-mongering fanatics.” The columnist George Will is “furious,” and the columnist Michelle Malkin writes “shameful” books pressing “‘interpretations’ that no sane person countenances,” while Horowitz exaggerates “hysterically.” Such psychic wants explain why, according to Bérubé, “we just don’t trust cultural conservatives’ track record over the long term, to be honest. We think they’re the heirs of the people who spent decades dehumanizing African-Americans and immigrants, arguing chapter and verse that the Bible endorses slavery and the subjection of women."

Note the lineage: Not a line of reasoning, but a swell of mad wrath. Not Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, T.S. Eliot, and Leo Strauss, but slaveholders, nativists, and sexists. Nothing from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, E.D. Hirsch Jr., Harvey C. Mansfield, and the late Philip Rieff, to cite more-recent writers who may be termed “educational conservatives.” The scholarly conservative case against higher education is overlooked, while Bérubé devotes too many words to the claims of discrimination by a conservative student on television’s Hannity & Colmes, to a worry by a state legislator about “leftist totalitarianism,” and so on.

I said there were three things deeply wrong with this, but before I get to them, I want to say that I like Mark Bauerlein.  Even though I thought his 2000 boundary 2 review of my 1998 book, The Employment of English, misrepresented the actual contents of the book, I appreciated the fact that Mark arranged for me to reply to his review in the same issue, so that I could say so in so many words.  Mark is smart and, most of the time, has a fine bullshit detector; his critiques of academic “groupthink” are often on target.  So I stand by what I said in my Inside Higher Ed interview with Scott McLemee back in September: I think my discipline would be intellectually healthier if it had more people like Mark in it.

OK, now for the deeply wrong things.

THING THE FIRST.  In that first paragraph, Mark takes two passages—the “otherwise reasonable cultural conservatives” bit and the “track record over the long term” bit—from my final chapter, which deals not with intellectual conservatism but with political conservatives and liberals.  The context of the “fumbling, conspiracy-mongering fanatics” line, for example, is my discussion of the cultural differences between the United States in 1966 and in 2006, and the full sentence reads,

And as for gay rights—at the moment, the single issue most likely to transform otherwise-reasonable cultural conservatives into fuming, conspiracy-mongering fanatics, searching for gay subtexts in “Teletubbies” and advocacy of the homosexual agenda by cartoon characters in SpongeBob SquarePants and PBS’ Postcards from Buster—how can I begin to catalog the ways in which American culture is infinitely queerer in 2006 than anyone could possibly have imagined—or dreaded—in 1966?

Am I wrong about such conservatives?  Never mind Margaret Spellings and Jerry Falwell, now.  Mark Bauerlein, please meet John Derbyshire.  Or Stanley Kurtz.  Or Michael Medved, who sees advocacy of the gay agenda even in movies like Happy Feet (because, you know, they suggest that being “different” isn’t grounds for social ostracization).  Personally, I think the only problem with this passage is the phrase “otherwise reasonable.”

Anyway, Mark makes it look as if the “scholarly conservative case against higher education is overlooked” (i.e., by me) by quoting from a chapter that doesn’t deal with scholarly conservatives.  Interestingly, he doesn’t mention my discussion, much earlier in the book, of one of the scholarly conservatives who criticize higher education—namely, Mark Bauerlein.  In chapter three of my book, I take up Mark’s essay “Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual,” and I write, “the most interesting—and, I think, most insightful—aspect of Mark Bauerlein’s version of the conservative complaint is its insistence that a field’s domination by liberal-left thought is bad not only for the field in question but also for liberal-left thought.” In other words, I think he’s right in principle, even if some of his examples undermine his argument:

There’s much to admire in Bauerlein’s brief for conservatives.  Indeed, it is (as Bauerlein makes clear in his citation of Mill) classically liberal: the university should indeed be an argument culture, as Gerald Graff has long argued, and arguments are strongest when they engage with the strongest possible opposing arguments.  But Bauerlein’s essay doesn’t always practice what it preaches.  His accounts of some academic subfields, for instance, are at once tendentious and glib: “the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism,” he writes, as if cultural studies theorists favor planned economies (they are much more often criticized, as in the work of Thomas Frank, for being unwitting advocates of libertarian capitalism).  “If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget pursuing a degree in African-American studies,” he continues, as if the study of African-American literature, history, and culture turns on the one social policy that American conservatives think of first when they think of black people and universities; and finally, most laughably, “if you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women’s studies.”

People who espouse serious argument should not descend to caricature, and Bauerlein’s characterization of women’s studies—a field in which my wife works, even as she helps to maintain the nuclear family to which I belong—is one step away from the claim that “womyn’s studies” would simply prefer a world without men.

So no, you can’t really say that What’s Liberal overlooks scholarly conservatives’ complaints about higher education.  Especially if you’re Mark Bauerlein.

THING THE SECOND. About this Horowitz fellow:  I humbly request that Mark Bauerlein make up his mind already.

Here and in his New Criterion review of my book, Mark takes me to task for dueling with Horowitz instead of the more serious people he would prefer me to debate.  In the comment thread after his review was posted to the Valve, for instance, Mark writes on November 5,

Remarkable how strongly David Horowitz figures in the horizon of academics interested in the liberal bias issue.

Now, Eric Rauchway called bullshit on this maneuver back on November 2, noting Dan Drezner’s Bauerleinian complaint that What’s Liberal doesn’t deal with “serious” conservatives:

Dan says Bérubé focused too much on David Horowitz, which apparently Bérubé shouldn’t have done because, Dan thinks, “it’s very hard to take [Horowitz’s] rantings about the academy seriously.” . . . Dan goes on to say that because Bérubé argues against “liberal bias” by disputing the significant Horowitz, “[a]s a refutation of the conservative critique, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts leaves something to be desired.” But if “the conservative critique” isn’t Horowitz’s complaint, what is it?

Writing a few days after Rauchway, many Valve commenters made the same point; so Mark, two days after suggesting that it is “remarkable” how strongly Horowitz figures in all this, weighed in to make it clear that he doesn’t take Horowitz seriously, except insofar as he does:

I don’t want to come off as renouncing David Horowitz, because I think that beneath the polemics and tactics lies a warranted criticism of the intellectual condition of the campus.  His politicking and smearing I take as simply the way politics are played, and having spent some time working in a politically delicate agency in DC, I don’t find his actions any worse than those of any other political advocacy campaign. Yes, he appears unfair, snide, belligerant . . . in academic settings. But in political ones, he’s a normal activist.

I replied to this stunning little two-step in that thread, but here I’d like to make another version of the same observation.  In 2004 Mark testified on behalf of Horowitz to the Georgia state legislature.  In What’s Liberal, and on this very blog, I noted that testimony, and noted also that Mark’s testimony seemed to contradict his insistence, in “Liberal Groupthink,” that “we can’t open the university to conservative ideas and persons by outside command. That would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the ideals of free inquiry. Leftist bias evolved within the protocols of academic practice (though not without intimidation), and conservative challenges should evolve in the same way.” In response to that blog post, Mark appeared in the comments section to say this:

You’re right, Michael, some of my statements in the earlier testimony were overheated. I do believe that state interference with personnel and curriculum would be disastrous. Other outside pressures, including intelligent media coverage and “consumer reports,” would be welcome, but not the intrusion of legislators. Instead of chalking my position(s) up to “intellectual dishonesty,” though, you might consider that I, like many others, am trying to work through complex issues of academic freedom, curricular design, and political bias, and it causes a lot of second and third thoughts, first impressions and lasting impressions, distinguishing one’s own experiences from the objective state of the academy. Ideas change, and approaches, too.

When I read that back in June, I liked Mark again.  But then I remembered that he wrote it just a few months after he’d testified on behalf of the version of Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights that was being debated by Pennsylvania’s House Committee on Academic Freedom.

So I’m left with two options.  One is to conclude that there are as many Mark Bauerleins as there are Ringo Starrs, and that neither of them is aware of the other’s work.  The other, which I prefer, is to ask Mark to decide, at long last, whether he wants to defend Horowitz or whether he wants to criticize people for taking on Horowitz instead of dealing with more “serious” and “scholarly” critiques.  Because doing both at once just doesn’t look good, intellectually speakin’.

And I don’t mean to pick on Mark in this regard.  I think this should be a problem for all “intellectual” conservatives: either embrace Horowitz or criticize him.  That’s your job for 2007, y’all—because, after all, Horowitz is one of yours now.  As they say in Boogie Nights, he’s not MP, he’s YP.

THING THE THIRD.  This one is really easy.  It’s a version of thing the second, but broader.  Let’s go back to Mark’s Chronicle essay for a moment, specifically to his complaint about how I handle certain wingnuts:

the columnist Michelle Malkin writes “shameful” books pressing “‘interpretations’ that no sane person countenances,” while Horowitz exaggerates “hysterically.”

Is Mark defending Malkin and Horowitz here?  It’s hard to tell.  He clearly implies that my characterizations of their work are examples of those nasty “stigmatizing references” to which he objects.  But he doesn’t bother to explain why I said what I said about Malkin and Horowitz, and he doesn’t bother to defend them on the merits, either.

So, again, I have some friendly words of counsel for all you serious intellectual conservatives out there.

Look, folks.  If you want to defend Malkin’s defense of the Japanese-American internment camps during WW2, or if you want to defend Horowitz’s claim that 99 percent of all campus commencement speakers come from the left, go right ahead.  I won’t stop you!  But don’t criticize my criticism of these claims and leave it at that.  Defend ‘em or join me in criticizin’ ‘em.  Fish or cut bait. 


Deep breath.

It’s kind of a shame that I have to append my brief reply to Dave Maier’s wonderful reading of What’s Liberal to this latest round of Horowitz-related sparring, but that’s how it goes—my time here is short, as you know.

Anyway, here’s Dr. Maier’s post in full, and here are my picky points about his picky points.

The first is very picky.  In my discussion of Richard Rorty, I suggested in passing that sometimes philosophers can get kind of, er, picky about who they consider to be a “real” philosopher.  Interestingly enough, Maier faults me for choosing to discuss Sam Harris as one of Rorty’s recent critics:

As an example of a realist, MB could have cited any number of people, from Roger Kimball to Jerry Fodor, but he actually turns to “philosopher Sam Harris” (he of the anti-religion polemic The End of Faith). Harris is actually a grad student in neuroscience, not a philosopher, but he apparently took a few courses with Rorty at Stanford, and feels he knows enough to set Rorty straight in his book.

OK, so, point one to me Maier.  Sam Harris earned his Ph.D. a degree in philosophy from Stanford.  [See comments 6 and 11.] (I’m sorry to sound so snippy about this, because Maier’s review is basically terrific: careful and bracing and sharp as hell.  But as you can no doubt tell, I am gettin’ a-weary of people telling me who I should and shouldn’t be debating.  At the end of his post, Maier tosses in an addendum on this score, complaining that my account of postmodernism should have discussed Gadamer and Ricoeur too: “Here’s a criticism which is no doubt unfair, but that, as I like to say, is how the bowling ball bounces. For a sixty-seven-page description of a course on postmodernism, one in the English department no less, there is surprisingly little in MB’s chapter—or the book as a whole—about hermeneutics.” Well, I do wish that Gadamer and Ricoeur had had more influence on the postmodernism debate in the 1980s than did Lyotard and Baudrillard, because they’re way smarter than Lyotard and Baudrillard.  But they didn’t, and that’s how the bowling ball bounced back then.)

But enough of the picky stuff; the center of gravity in Maier’s critique lies elsewhere.  He lodges two complaints about What’s Liberal with which I have to agree: one, he doesn’t like the word “incommensurability,” because of the “massive ambiguity of this term.” Noted!  I remark in What’s Liberal that there’s an entire Theory Wing devoted to calling everything an incommensurability.  Two, he accuses me (justly) of “cutting corners” by following John Searle in defending anti-realism in moral affairs but conceding realism with regard to the natural world.  He’s quite right about this.  I cut a few corners in What’s Liberal, and spent the second and third essays of Rhetorical Occasions filling in a few of the gaps.  But I have to say I just don’t quite understand what Maier is driving at when he insists that one has to be a consistent anti-realist or a consistent realist:

This leads to another of Rorty’s favorite shibboleths, one which MB picks up as well. Following Dewey (and his similar rejection of the Cartesian “spectator theory of knowledge"), Rorty puts great stock in rejecting the “correspondence theory of truth” in favor of a “coherence” view. Again, the reason “coherence” looks to Rorty like an improvement over “correspondence” is that it allows him to say that our justificatory obligations are not to the world but instead, on the one hand, to the rest of our beliefs (with which the new belief must fit), and on the other, to our fellow inquirers (our relations with the world being “merely causal"). But this cannot eliminate the (normative) relation to the world. For something to be a belief at all—and, not coincidentally, for the concepts that make it up to mean what they do in expressing the belief in question—it must be held to be true of the world.

In his fight against “correspondence,” Rorty has appealed to Davidson, who at first seems to agree—though Davidson’s commitment to “coherence” is half-hearted in spots (see “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge,” anthologized here)—but it is Davidsonian considerations that thwart him (and eventually Davidson himself; but that’s another story). For a belief to have the content it does—for it to be a belief that P—it must be appropriately sensitive to evidence that P is actually the case. That is, in order for you to convince me that X is indeed saying what you say X is saying—that your interpretation of his words is correct—you must show that the beliefs you ascribe to him in so doing are (that is, that he is) appropriately sensitive (whatever that may mean in the context) to evidence that the world is not that way. Which way? The way he believes it to be, on your account of what “P” means in his mouth when he asserts it. Naturally you will use your own terms, and refer to the world as you believe it to be, when telling me this. But that’s okay; I’m in the same position w/r/t your utterances as you are to his, so that’s been taken into account.

See, when we’re talking about “truth,” I think the difference between sentences like “it is true that atoms are made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons” and sentences like “there are three things wrong with Bauerlein’s most recent account of my book” amounts to all the difference in the world.  The second kind of utterance, the one in which I make a claim that P is the case because X is indeed saying what I say X is saying, is a matter of hermeneutics, and such matters are indeed (on my account) best thought of in terms of coherence and consensus: I will persuade some of you, but not all, that my account of P and X is plausible, and my capacity to persuade will be based not on some appeal to mind-independent objects but to standards of evidence, argument, and interpretation that we may or may not share with regard to the deciphering of human utterances.  Whereas when you and I argue about the composition of matter, we’re not arguing about something that can interpret us back and say, “see here, you misunderstand me completely.” And that’s why I think, in my naive and amateur way, that there’s a qualitative difference between talking about the world of brute fact and the world of social fact (even if I also argue, contra Searle, that the distinction between brute fact and social fact is drawn by social fact).  So when I read someone like Maier writing that “for something to be a belief at all . . . it must be held to be true of the world,” I always want to know which world we’re talking about: because the interpretive protocols by which we determine the true state of matter in the universe seem to me to be quite different from the interpretive protocols by which we determine the true state of the matter with regard to reviews of people’s books.

Thanks to Dave Maier for reading What’s Liberal so rigorously—and thanks to everyone who participated in Liberalpalooza over the past two months.  I’m deeply grateful for the whole Book Event; it’s meant much more to me than I can say.

Posted by Michael on 01/06 at 12:36 PM
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Friday, January 05, 2007

ABF Friday:  Special Charlie Watts Edition!

Over the holidays I’ve finally gotten a few hours to put “songs” on my “iPod.” No, I didn’t get an iPod for Molochmas—I got an iPod for my birthday, over three months ago.  That’s how inhumanely busy my life has been this past fall:  I didn’t even have time to round up CDs and transfer them to the iPod until just this week.  “Dad,” Nick said last week, with filial pity in his voice, “you can transfer things to the iPod on your laptop while you’re doing other things.” “True enough,” I replied.  “But first I have to find the CDs, and that takes a great deal of time, because, you see, none of the CDs in this house are in their CD cases.  For example, in your room you have approximately 400 CD cases, including some that nominally belong to me, like Ziggy Stardust and the Ramones’ first two albums.  But lo!  There are no CDs in them.  Where are those CDs, pray tell?”

“I don’t know,” Nick replied.

“Well, then,” I said, “is it possible for you to download those things from your iPod onto my laptop, thence to my iPod?”

“It’s possible, sure,” Nick mused, “but they don’t really want you to do it, of course, because it’s not really ‘legal.’”

“I understand completely,” I nodded.  “Artists should be compensated for their hard work, and so should corporate megaconglomerates.  But I wonder whether we can’t make an exception for families in which, say, one person takes another person’s CD, downloads the songs onto an iPod, and then leaves the CD someplace behind the dryer with the lost socks.”

All of which is to say that I have worked long and hard to gather what Rolling Stones I have on hand, so that I can bring you today’s Arbitrary But Fun Charlie Watts edition.  Eighteen months ago, at my very first blogger meetup, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Scott Lemieux asked me for my professional opinion of Charlie Watts, and I promised them (in the course of answering them) that I would post something on this critical topic one of these days.  So it’s taken me until my final week of blogging, but here it is.

Now, since many of you know that my house is a Beatles-besotted house, I should explain a few things about my relation to the Stones.  First, I came along when they were just about done: I didn’t start listening to music as if it mattered until my early teen years, and by 1974 the Stones, like Gerald Ford during his Polydor years, had already recorded most of their best work.  (Anyone who tries to put in a good word for Emotional Rescue or Tattoo You or any of their dessicated sequelae will be banned from this blog for the remaining days of its existence.) So my first Stones hit was “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” which, like most songs dealing with the love of rock and roll or the heart of rock and roll or the just give me old-time rock and rollness of rock and roll, sucks.  By 1978, the music-literate high-school seniors with whom I hung out—the ones who dismissed Darkness on the Edge of Town as one anthem after another (prove it all night!) and declared Who are You? DOA just before Keith D’d—were ambivalent about Some Girls.  One of my friends played it every day without fail; another insisted that only one or two of its songs could stand up with the fare of Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street.  Then in my sophomore year of college, I met Mark Rykoff, who’s remained a dear friend ever since; it was Mark who led me past the various gaudy attractions of “Gimme Shelter” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and pointed me to things like “Sway” and the really quite amazing “Torn and Frayed.” Here, he said.  Listen to these things. This is why I love the Stones.  Yes, they’re a great rock and roll band and all, perhaps the greatest garage band ever to emerge from the UK, the Clash included; but, Mark said, what’s really great about them is the way they play sloppy.

He’s right about that, you know.  To this day, it remains the one place in rock where the Stones could go and the Beatles couldn’t: to the half-drunken late-night jam just before the police knock and those doors fly back, when the joint is still reelin’ and rockin’ and nobody really gives a shit if the band is all together.  Even Lennon’s “Yer Blues” is decorum itself compared to “Carol” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Of course, that’s the problem with the Stones, too: from “Honest I Do” on their first LP to “Cherry Oh Baby” on Black and Blue, they can sound like utter crap.  And not in a good way, either.  Neither of those songs should ever have been committed to vinyl or any other medium.  I mean, let’s have some quality-control standards around here, people.

(A brief aside: thanks to Mark’s sage guidance, I once went through the entire Stones catalog and made a couple of compilation tapes of my favorite pre-1973 things of theirs, including lots of things like their cover of O. V. Wright’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” These were among the first tapes swiped from me at various U. Va. grad-student parties in 1983-85.  Whoever has those tapes, or the tape on which I segued from the Talking Heads’s “The Great Curve” to Babatunde Olatunji’s “Kiya Kiya” to the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” to Grace Jones’s “Pull Up to the Bumper”—now, that was some booty-shakin’ material—you better give them back or I’ll come and get you when I’m through with this here blog.)

So what does this Stoney sloppiness have to do with Charlie Watts?  Well, everything, of course.  Those of you who are familiar with my various accounts of the Beatles know that I explain the discrepancy between Ringo’s crispness and brilliance on minor ditties like “What Goes On” and “Old Brown Shoe” and Ringo’s general incompetence on songs like “Think For Yourself” or “Revolution” by invoking my Two Ringoes Theory.  Nobody believes me when I tell them the Beatles were using two completely different drummers, both of whom were named Ringo Starr and both of whom had an adorably flat, nasal singing voice.  But if you sheeple prefer to live in a cheering political paradigm in which everything is just as George Martin says it is, that’s fine by me.  The simple fact remains that there were two Ringoes, and if the CIA hadn’t assassinated Jimmy Nicol just before he was supposed to meet with me in 1988, I could prove it to you right now.

Anyway, there is only one Charlie Watts.  But he has two modes of drumming: metronomic and attentive.  For reasons known only to Charlie himself, he seems to have decided that songs such as “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” are best served by the metronomic.  I don’t get it, myself.  Not that you’d want Keith Moon or Clem Burke banging away all over songs like those, but really, just a little variation, an accent here or there, a slight rise in temperature . . . these things can do wonders for a song!  Take “Brown Sugar”: again, very simple, Rock Drumming 101 kind of stuff, and then that one little half-bar fill during the solo.  Was that so hard?  Or the great driving force of “Paint It Black,” with those deft rolls on the toms.  Or the snap-to smacks on the snare in the second verse of “Shine a Light,” right after the words “when you’re drunk” and then on three successive whole-note intervals.  Couldn’t Charlie have contributed something like that to those other songs?  He’s supposed to be a jazz fan and all, it could have been something subtle and understated.  But no, it’s just the metronome.  It’s like he’s, I dunno, just marking time or something.  And the metronome can be a serious problem on Stones songs that start off with great riffs and then don’t go anywhere from there, because the riff is the only thing they’re based on.  There are many of these; the best of them is probably “Under My Thumb,” the most disappointing “Monkey Man.” A little judicious kick-start from the drummer might’ve helped—you know, the kind of kick-start you get from “Route 66.”

Weirdly, some of Charlie Watts’ most attentive work comes on the meandering melancholy mid-period songs, like “Angie” or “Memory Motel.” Despite the badly-played little cymbal flourish at the very end of “Memory Motel,” for example, the rest of the song contains some pretty nice drumming, clever and dramatic and understated all at once.  It’s as if Mr. Watts decided that his talents would be put to better use on such songs, or on magnificently sloppy things like “Torn and Frayed,” while the Glimmer Twins took the lead on some of the Greatest Hits.

But there’s something else about Charlie’s drumming, as well.  Bill Wyman put his finger on it, so to speak, in an interview about 35 years ago; Mark and I chewed over this interview word by word back in 1981 when we came across it, not least because it seemed to address the Sloppy Stones question in a way that satisfied our penchant for preferring technical engine-room answers to the usual rock-critic blather.  (My personal fave in this genre: the great Elvin Jones, when asked in 1982 by Modern Drummer whether he’d gone to the 18-inch bass drum for a “jazzier, poppier sound,” replying that he’d gotten an 18-inch bass drum because it fits in the trunk of his car.  He’d always wanted one of those huge 28-inch Jelly Roll Morton-era bass drums, he explained, but he had to keep tying it to the top of his car, see, and it kept falling off. . . .) According to Wyman, what made the Stones’ sound distinctive was that the band took its time from Keith and not from Charlie.  That’s why, Wyman said, the Stones can sound a little bit off here and there, a little bit ahead of or behind the bar, even if just by a hundredth of a second or so.  But it’s also why they sound so vivid and surprising on some of the bluesier R&B numbers.  Of course, real drummers (at least the ones I spoke to at the time) were horrified by this, because to them it’s a little like saying, “in this body we rely on the liver to pump the blood, OK, and the heart follows along.” ‘Cause, you know, the heart of rock and roll is the beat. Not the liver! But Wyman’s probably right about this, because, (a) uh, he should know, and (b) it helps to make sense of why some of Charlie’s best work would appear on slower tunes where his drumming is almost incidental to the development of the song.

One last thing about the Stones.  I was listening to “Hand of Fate” the other day—perhaps the only song on Black and Blue that wouldn’t appear out of place on, say, side four of Exile.  I suggest you go listen to it right now, and turn it up loud for Wayne Perkins’ searing solo, which begins at the 1:31 mark.  Not only is it a great little piece of guitar work that takes its song to the Next Level (catch the flourish at 1:56, too, and Charlie’s timely helping hand at 1:48); it’s also the last time the Stones recorded anything like it.  Yep, it’s been over thirty years now since the Stones had a proper guitar solo on one of their records.  Heh heh heh, oh my yes.  Why, I remember when they played with all six strings!  And then they decided to hire that sloppy-playin’ tousled-hair fellow Ron Wood instead, no doubt because they just couldn’t imagine life on tour with a Stone named Wayne—or (even worse) a Stone named Harvey, like Harvey Mandel, who plays that circuituous, squawky solo on “Hot Stuff.” After that, it’s almost as if the Stones joined the ranks of the hair bands, except that they were rather wrinklier than Poison.

Posted by Michael on 01/05 at 09:38 AM
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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Liberal Thursday V:  Special Bauerlein Edition!

Last month, Mark Bauerlein wrote a Chronicle of Higher Education essay in which he said this:

In What’s Liberal ... ?, conservatism suffers similarly from stigmatizing references. Bérubé focuses on the anti-academic conservatives and fills his descriptions with diagnostic asides. Gay-rights debates “transform otherwise reasonable cultural conservatives into fumbling, conspiracy-mongering fanatics.” The columnist George Will is “furious,” and the columnist Michelle Malkin writes “shameful” books pressing “‘interpretations’ that no sane person countenances,” while Horowitz exaggerates “hysterically.” Such psychic wants explain why, according to Bérubé, “we just don’t trust cultural conservatives’ track record over the long term, to be honest. We think they’re the heirs of the people who spent decades dehumanizing African-Americans and immigrants, arguing chapter and verse that the Bible endorses slavery and the subjection of women."

Note the lineage: Not a line of reasoning, but a swell of mad wrath. Not Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, T.S. Eliot, and Leo Strauss, but slaveholders, nativists, and sexists. Nothing from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, E.D. Hirsch Jr., Harvey C. Mansfield, and the late Philip Rieff, to cite more-recent writers who may be termed “educational conservatives.” The scholarly conservative case against higher education is overlooked, while Bérubé devotes too many words to the claims of discrimination by a conservative student on television’s Hannity & Colmes, to a worry by a state legislator about “leftist totalitarianism,” and so on.

By my count, there are three things deeply wrong with this.  I’ll get to them on Saturday, but if you’d like to see something even wronger with Bauerlein’s essay, read the whole thing (as they say on blogs) and wait ‘til you get to his treatment of Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.  You know, there really is only one intellectually respectable way to discuss D’Souza’s The Enemy At Home, and Mark Warren has recently provided a handy demonstration of that way in the pages of Esquire.  Bauerlein, by contrast, decided to go the route of the D’Souza Enabler—offering a measured assessment of The Enemy at Home, the kind that helps Dinesh burnish his credentials as a Serious Person.  And yes, I’ll get to that on Saturday too.  But rest assured that I won’t associate Harvey Mansfield with racism in any shape or form just because he went around for years claiming, without a shred of empirical evidence, that grade inflation at Harvard was the work of molly-coddling liberal professors trying gamely to mask the shortcomings of Harvard’s African-American students.

In the meantime, consider this completely unrelated conundrum: Boogie Nights is very much like Ed Wood in that it is a very good movie about the campy very badness of very bad movies, and it continually (and rather gracefully) walks the line between ridiculing and paying wry homage to its subject.  (I mean, Brock Landers and Chest Rockwell really are great names!) And yet Boogie Nights is also like The Kids Are Alright insofar as it takes its name from a song that is entirely appropriate to the subject yet appears nowhere on the soundtrack.

Coincidence . . . or mystery?

Posted by Michael on 01/04 at 07:33 AM
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