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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Theory Thursday

The political unconscious is structured like a mortgage.

Posted by Michael on 05/21 at 10:50 AM
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Credit where credit is due

OK, by popular demand, it’s Tales of Dangeral Copyediting time!  I have two problems, one of which requires your help.  The first is this: there’s a new style in town, apparently, whereby book and article titles are cited in full in the Works Cited but, if they begin with an “A” or a “The,” the definite or indefinite article is dropped in the notes.  At first, I found this merely puzzling, but I didn’t mind. First they came for the definite and indefinite articles, and I did not object, because I was not a definite or indefinite article. . . . Changing Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine to Suskind, One Percent Doctrine, doesn’t look all that weird.  But changing Judith Williamson’s “The Problems of Being Popular” to Williamson, “Problems of Being Popular,” sounds a little telegraphic.  Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, maybe; Hastings and Jenkins, Battle for the Falklands, perhaps; but Thompson, Poverty of Theory, absolutely not.  And I notice that the copyeditor didn’t touch The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, because, come on, Empire Strikes Back sounds like it’s been through the Babelfish once too often.

So I’m inclined to restore all the definite and indefinite articles to their rightful places, which means writing “stet” in the notes a couple dozen times.  In fact, the minute this post goes up, I’m going to go a-hunting for all those deleted definite and indefinite articles.  This, I believe, is what they call sweating the small stuff.  And it’s gotta be done.  Today.  My question is this: should I take the opportunity to change all these “The”s to “Teh”?  It’s not like the opportunity presents itself very often.

The other problem is simpler but more vexing.  Readers, comrades, beloved interlocutors, lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song.  You know I have an allusive writing style.  I can’t help it: sometimes when I’m thinking up words, I think of words that other people have written, especially if they’re words I like.  Today, however, I’m thinking of words I can’t stand, because last night, there came a killing frost.  Really!  On May 18, it was 30 degrees here overnight!  Janet and I had to haul a bunch of plants inside, and cover a bunch of flowering bushes, and even still, the pony she named Wildfire busted down its stall.  In a blizzard he was lost.  But the words that bother me right now are “There’s been a hoot-owl howling by my window now for six nights in a row”—words I didn’t even remember until Janet mockingly sang them this morning, and which now sound to me like even more of an abomination than the idea of a pony busting down his stall because of a killing frost, because, as Janet pointed out, (a) there is no such thing as a hoot-owl, (b) owls don’t howl, and (c) what’s all this supposed to mean, anyway, that there’s an owl outside your window for six nights in a row?  Is it trying to deliver a letter from Hogwarts?  What?

Now, where was I?  Oh, right.  Allusive writing style.  OK, so at one point in The Left At War, I’m talking about how the left tries to balance the imperatives of equality and freedom, because I have been inspired in this regard by the late Ellen Willis.  And I’m saying that I consider myself to be on the social-democratic left: 

“democratic” because I do not see how one can fully nationalize an economy without creating an enormous and repressive state apparatus, “social-democratic” because I believe that without a measure of practical equality with regard to fundamental human needs, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first half of that formulation is a nod to Nussbaum’s and Sen’s “capabilities” approach to human rights; the second half is from a popular song.  So the copyeditor changed this to “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose (apologies to Janis Joplin).” When I saw that, I screamed, because

(a) NO!
(b) it’s Kris Kristofferson’s song, anyway
and, finally,
(c) NO!

Much later on, I’m talking about Stuart Hall’s response to the Falklands war, and I’m suggesting that there might have been a way to oppose that war without mocking the idea that, as Hall put it, “tin-pot dictators should be stood up to.” In a most uncharacteristic lapse, Hall had written, “Mrs T is simply our most-beloved Good Housekeeper.  Children should be brought up as our parents brought us up.  Mothers should stay at home.  Tin-pot dictators should be stood up to.  These are the grand truths which history and experience teach.” And I reply that it’s a mistake to lump the third of these with the other two, if indeed one is trying, as Hall puts it elsewhere, to reach the man in the pub and his family and persuade them not to support the Falklands escapade.  So I offer this counterexample: the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.  If you’re my age or older, surely you remember the mid-to-late-70s outrage, on the wingnut right, at the idea that the U.S. would cede control of the Panama Canal.  It was quite a thing at the time; an allusion to it even made it into that famous “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a liberal couple finds that all their friends have been taken over by Reaganite pods.  One former liberal (played by Harry Shearer, iirc) hypnotically intones Reagan’s famous line, “We bought it. We paid for it. It’s ours. And we’re gonna keep it,” to which the couple replies, “what, the Panama Canal?” and the friend says, “no, the patio.”

Anyway, when control of the Canal finally passed to Panama in 1999, the funny thing was that nobody gave a hoot-owl except for the six remaining John Birchers in the country. Whereas, I argue, if some guy named Noriega had simply seized the Canal in 1983, the way Galtieri did the Malvinas, Reagan would very likely have responded by invading Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba for good measure—and would have done so with overwhelming public support.  So I wind up the discussion by noting that Hall, in his family-in-the-pub appeal, considered only two options: solidarity with the Argentines (not bloody likely, he admits) or “this war is none of our concern.” I suggest (and of course I’m thinking also of Iraq, folks),

instead of being astonished at the surge of seemingly farcical patriotism during times of war, and instead of consigning “tin-pot dictators should be stood up to” to the vocabulary of the reactionary, mothers-should-stay-at-home right, the left should find ways of negotiating the difficult terrain between tin-pot dictators and farcical neo-imperialists: all we are saying, we might try saying, is give international law and institutions a chance.

You might reply that the left did do that during the runup to the Iraq war.  But then you wouldn’t be thinking of the left I’m talking about, the one that opposed no-fly zones and UN weapons inspections as illegitimate, Imperialism-Lite violations of Iraqi sovereignty.  Anyway, the copyeditor, sure enough, added “(apologies to John Lennon)” to this stirring allusive phrase of mine, and I took that right back out, on the grounds that there isn’t anyone in the English-speaking world who wouldn’t catch the allusion to Mr. Lennon’s work.

I just don’t think I owe any apologies to John Lennon or Janis Joplin, OK?

However: I most certainly do owe an apology to one Dan McEnroe.  Some time ago, he wrote what remains by far the single funniest thing on the global financial crisis—something about how an apocalypse built on credit default swaps is Teh suXX0r as apocalypses go.  I heart that line dearly and wanted to work that into my commencement speech, but I was so sure that Thers wrote it, and I couldn’t find it.  So I paraphrased it as best I could, opening by attributing it to a generic Somebody Else Not Me: “I recently came across someone remarking that we’ve produced a lot of apocalyptic fantasies in the course of the past century,” and closing with “‘So,’ my friend said, ‘if civilization winds up collapsing because of credit default swaps, I’m going to be really disappointed. It’s terribly anticlimactic. We’re not even going to get zombies.’” Because although I’ve never met him, I do consider Thers a kind of Internet friend.  And I hate it when people swipe stuff from the Internets and don’t credit people.  Don’t you?

So of course I found it yesterday.  It was from early March, and it was indeed Thers, in a way, but he was posting at the Light Blue Satan, not at Whiskey Fire; the “zombies” line is indeed his, but the whole conceit is actually Mr. McEnroe’s, as the “hyper-link” makes clear.  And, in fact, when I first read it I even left a comment on Mr. McEnroe’s blog, which is called “A Blog Named Sue,” which appears to be an allusion to a popular song.  My comment, of course, consists of an allusion.

My apologies for forgetting that, Mr. McEnroe, and attributing your very funny line to “someone” (which, although accurate, doesn’t really follow proper citation format).  I promise that when I repeat this bit in the future—and I will!—I will say, “the writer Dan McEnroe.” And then I will say, “as the blogger known as ‘Thersites’ replied.” In the meantime, thank you for writing what is by far the single funniest thing on the global financial crisis.  I can assure you that the graduates of Marlboro College and their families enjoyed it too. 

Posted by Michael on 05/19 at 12:00 PM
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Monday, May 18, 2009

Job announcement

You’ll probably have to wade through comments 49-69 in this weekend’s thread in order to get this joke, and the game might not be worth the candle.* But here goes, anyway.

T/T position for Marxist-feminist mathematician. Analytic number theorist with training in the works of Angela Davis preferred, but search will remain open until a suitable candidate is found.  Applicants should be able to design introductory courses in integral and differential calculus in such a way as to lead students to an understanding of conjunctural systems of oppression and exploitation, and will be expected to teach the undergraduate general education requirement in Gender, Class, and Trigonometry.  C/V, dossier, and letter of approval from Michael Bérubé required by July 1.  AA/EEO.

* While I’ve been traveling from State College to Dulles to Toronto to Halifax for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society conference (which was great!) and then back from Halifax through Toronto to Boston thence to Marlboro College (by car, courtesy of Thomas Transportation—and hey, my driver in Halifax, one Mr. MacLeod, actually Googled me between the time he picked me up Friday night and the time he picked me up again on Saturday.  Thanks for showing me the Halifax citadel, Mr. MacLeod!), and then from Marlboro (which was great!) to Bradley, where I’ll be leaving for Dulles and State College, I’ve also been looking over the copyedited version of The Left at War.  The copyeditor did a fine fine job with a difficult manuscript full of “citations” and circumlocutions, but did question my use of the phrase “the game is not worth the candle” and asked me to rewrite it.** I’m gonna say no, that game isn’t worth the candle.  I mean, it’s a perfectly cromulent phrase, isn’t it?

** I have to return the copyedited ms by Wednesday.  But I promise not to try to enthrall you all with dangeral copyediting stories, the way I did with Rhetorical Occasions and What’s Liberal.***

*** Multiple-asterisking Internet tradition founded and perfected by the mysterious mds.

Posted by Michael on 05/18 at 08:36 AM
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fraudulent journalist, c’est moi

In January 1995 I published a little essay that almost nobody liked.  Eh, that happens sometimes.  It was a review essay on the then-recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals, and I wrote it quite simply because the New Yorker asked me to.  I was a newly-tenured associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I was surprised by the request; to this day it’s the only time I’ve written for the New Yorker.  And then, within about three months of the thing’s appearance, a whole mess of people decided to weigh in on the work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals.  Many of those people came to the conclusion that I had done a pretty piss-poor job of writing about the recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals; the general verdict was that I had basically written a press release, a puff piece on a bunch of lightweights and/or sellouts.  But some of those people weren’t responding to me at all; they had much more important figures to go after, like Cornel West.  And it wasn’t just my little essay they were responding to; my essay was bad enough, sure, but it was compounded by the appearance, in the March 1995 Atlantic, of a much longer essay by Robert Boynton.  That essay was about the work of a couple of other African-American intellectuals, and, like my essay, it drew a loose analogy between contemporary African-American intellectuals and the New York intellectuals of yesteryear, so clearly there was some kind of conspiracy afoot.

By the time Leon Wieseltier had taken to the pages of The New Republic to thunder that Cornel West’s work was “noisy, tedious, slippery . . . sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared,” indeed, “almost completely worthless,” and Adolph Reed Jr., doing his usual contrarian thing, had shot back in the Village Voice that Wieseltier’s essay was a “right-for-the-wrong-reasons attack,” I could see that there was a bona fide pile-on in progress. As even the leftist Adolph Reed Jr. says about Leon Wieseltier’s essay in Even The Liberal New Republic. . . . And so, uncharacteristically, I decided to stay mostly out of the fray—until Sean Wilentz published “Race, Celebrity, and the Intellectuals: Notes on a Donnybrook” in the summer 1995 issue of Dissent.  At the time, I was a little bit pissed off that Wilentz accused me of “liberal racialism,” and a little more pissed off that he wrote,

in 1963, it was possible to open the New Yorker and find Dwight Macdonald there descanting thoughtfully and at length about The Other America.  Now in place of Macdonald there is Michael Bérubé celebrating Race Matters and works by the other new black intellectuals—a case of misjudgment, no doubt, but also a sign about more general trends in intellectual reportage.  Whereas Harrington could count on tough remarks and rebuttals as well as praise, especially from his closest associates and friends, West and many of the other prominent black writers have been treated (at least until recently) to the sort of tumultuous acclaim that suffocates their better intentions.


the hype has been picked up by writers for the national media and turned into more disturbing forms of celebrity mongering—the latest example of a trend that has gripped almost every field of artistic and academic endeavor.  And some of the mongering has managed to slip into some unexpected places.  The grandest puff appeared last winter in a group review by Michael Bérubé that turned up in the New Yorker. . . .

Now, I admit that I have a funny reaction when people sneer at me like this and ask who let me into the club; I usually extend my hand to them and say, “it’s such a pleasure to meet you—I’m your replacement, and I have to ask you to leave.” So part of my reply to Wilentz in the fall ‘95 Dissent included my Deeply Considered Opinion that his essay was “half pot-shot, half rehash, wholly inadequate to the task,” and it closed by asking Dissent “how Sean Wilentz’s piece managed to slip into your pages.” (In the following issue, Martin Kilson chipped in, writing, “I do not think the Sean Wilentz article . . . warranted publication in Dissent.” I liked that.) But seriously, I did think it was a bit rich for me to be accused of celebrity-mongering in an essay that included passages like this:

“The proper starting point for the crucial debate about the prospects for black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities,” [West] writes in Race Matters.  This is a risky position for any progressive social critic, and particularly for any black social critic who appeals for the remediation of black poverty but does not wish to present poor blacks as, yet again, passive “targets” for social reform or as participant-victims of a dysfunctional culture.  West wants to generate concern about the black poor without pathologizing them (or construing the black middle class as greedy wannabes); at the same time, he wants to defend “traditional morality” and traditional institutions, like churches and schools, from that dread culture of consumption without simply reciting the neoconservative mantras— religion, family values, private associations—of our day.  It’s a tricky double play, and he doesn’t always pull it off.  The fact is that it’s often difficult to distinguish between conservative and progressive critiques of the social corrosiveness of consumer capital.  For one thing, both points of view tend to rely on the idea of some once unalienated human community that has been violated by modernity: leftists can look back at precapitalist gemeinschaft and conservatives can long for the agrarian pastoral with more or less the same ardor.  It’s remarkable but altogether fitting that West’s work turns out to make some common cause with that of the cultural conservative Daniel Bell—who “in stark contrast to black conservatives,” West writes, “highlights the larger social and cultural forces, for example, consumerism and hedonism, which undermine the Protestant ethic and its concomitant values.”

Because the funny thing was that my little essay was not, in fact, totally bereft of “ideas.” OK, they weren’t very great ideas, and yes, I admit that I opened the piece by writing “Cornel West is Teh R0xx0r Intellectual Of All Times!!1!1”—but even there, I think I deserve some credit for being the first person to use “Teh” in the New Yorker.  (Dwight Macdonald was actually the first to write “R0xx0r,” though few people remember this today.) But I did try to suggest a thing or two along the way, like this, for example:

What Marxism was to Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, Philip Rahv, and company, black nationalism is to West, Gates, hooks, et al.:  the inspiration, the springboard, the template, but also the antagonist and the goad.  Just as the postwar Jewish intelligentsia largely abandoned radical politics but remained committed to rethinking America’s progressivist traditions (often by delivering scathing critiques of radical politics), the black intelligentsia of our fin de siècle has largely abandoned cultural nationalism while remaining committed to refiguring forms of African-American collectivity (often by delivering scathing critiques of cultural nationalism).  But the new intellectuals have a markedly different relation to the vernacular of their time.  A major part of what the New York intellectuals represented, in cultural politics, was a collocation of the politics of anti-Communism with the literature of high modernism–something that required its inventors to erect a cordon sanitaire protecting “real” culture from contamination by the kitsch, dreck, schlock, pop, and camp that surrounded it.  One cannot imagine, given the past decade’s controversies over black popular culture, the new black intelligentsia adopting the same cultural politics.

And this:

Because non-black audiences are still the ones that have the power to put black artists at the top of the charts, African-American intellectuals’ uneasiness about black commercial and professional success stems in part from the long-standing fear that “crossing over” must entail selling out.  It’s what leads to hooks’ attack on [Spike] Lee—the unstated suspicion that any critical or commercial success with white audiences is, de facto, political failure. [hooks had argued that “Lee’s work cannot be revolutionary and generate wealth at the same time,” so that he is confined to “reproducing conservative and even stereotypical images of blackness so as not to alienate that crossover audience”; specifically, she insisted that his version of Malcolm X “has more in common with Steven Spielberg’s representation of Mister in the film version of The Color Purple than with real-life portraits of Malcolm X.”]

So if black public intellectuals are legitimated by their sense of a constituency, they’re hamstrung by it, too: they can be charged with betraying that constituency as easily as they can be credited with representing it.  On the one hand, they have an unprecedented opportunity to speak from, to, and for a public, since their professional bona fides depend not on their repudiation of vernacular African-American culture but on their engagement with it.  On the other hand, they inhabit an intellectual tradition of extreme sensitivity toward the issue of who represents what to whom—a tradition in which the weightiest term of disapprobation is that familiar bludgeon “Uncle Tom.”

And, finally, this:

Nor is fluency in popular culture a guarantor of popular influence.  In the preface to Making Malcolm, Michael Eric Dyson recounts that when he quoted Snoop Doggy Dogg during a United States Senate subcommittee hearing on gangsta rap he was told by a young black admirer that “for a guy your age, you really can flow.” He’s right to be pleased by the compliment.  An intellectual generation that responds broadly and sympathetically to popular culture has numerous advantages over an intellectual generation that defines itself against popular culture.  But for cultural critics the danger of popular acclaim is that it can tempt them to pay more attention to the responses of young admirers than to the deliberations of Senate subcommittees.  And it can tempt them to pull their punches, as when bell hooks, in an interview with the rap artist Ice Cube that appears in Outlaw Culture, sounds uncharacteristically tentative about Cube’s misogynistic lyrics and declines even to ask him about his role as a pitchman for St. Ides.  Intellectuals need not be so arrogant as to claim to occupy the cultural vanguard, but in renouncing that role they need not settle for the role of fan, disk jockey, or press agent. . . .

The overwhelming irony here is that black public intellectuals are doing their work—at colleges, in churches, and on cable TV—at a time when the very idea of “the public” has become nearly unthinkable in national politics.  Such has been the signal achievement of the New Right, whose religious wing has built its organizations on the bedrock of home, school, and family while attacking the realm of the public in the name of the people.  Public housing, public education, public health, public ownership, public welfare—to much of the American electorate these terms signify that which is not in the public interest.  Black public intellectuals like West or hooks may have a large public following, but the paradoxical conditions under which they operate dictate that they will have to revivify the nation’s faith in the “public” if their work is going to have broad political consequences.  The measure of their success will be the degree to which they help generate a sense of the public as elastic and capacious as their sense of the intellectual.

Controversies over Snoop Dogg and St. Ides!  Ah, it was another time, you understand.  A long, long time ago. And more than a decade ago, I gave all this stuff its very own file in my office file cabinet, stuffing in all the essays by Sean Wilentz and Leon Wieseltier and Adolph Reed and Ellen Willis and Jon Weiner and Michael Hanchard and then later academic essays by Henry Giroux and Herman Gray and even bell hooks’ reply (she wasn’t very pleased either), and I haven’t looked at it since.

So why am I looking at it now?  Because, dear reader, I recently came across an essay in the Blackwell Companion to African-American Studies, edited by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon and published in 2007.  It’s Hazel Carby’s “The New Auction Block: Blackness and the Marketplace.” And guess what?  Part of the essay is yet another attack on Ye Olde New Yorker Essay of 1995, written by me.  And this time, my essay isn’t just celebrity-mongering and grand-puff-daddying.  It’s also “paternalistic”—and worse!

But before we get to the worse part, let’s explain the “paternalistic” part.  It has to do with Carby’s belief that Robert Boynton and I claimed to have discovered black intellectuals for the first time in all of recorded history.  The lead-in goes like so:

Marketing the field has led to a preoccupation with the “newness” of African-American Studies, an arena in which scholars continually make “discoveries” erasing the history of any previous engagement with these texts (124).

In the next few years the media would become obsessed with the newness or novelty value of African-American Studies and the originality and rarity of their “discovery” of black intellectuals. . . .  The “traffic between culture and authority” would be apparent in the 1990s, when contemporary black intellectuals were “discovered” and in the process authenticated by the New York literary establishment.  Media investigations into African-American Studies and the role of black intellectuals read like journalistic sorties into the colonial wilderness of the academic outback. (125)

OK, so by this point I’m a member of the New York literary establishment, hacking his way into the colonial wilderness of the academic outback.  All the way from central Illinois. And then comes the bit about how my essay didn’t talk about any, you know, books and ideas:

Bérubé’s review, instead of being a review of this work, of books and ideas, turns out to be a review of these authors; they are paraded like models on the catwalk of the latest academic fashion shows.  (125-26)

But of course it is not intellectual history that is at stake in this story, it is marketing.  The point is to erase history and to deny an organic relation between contemporary black intellectuals to a past of collective struggle.  (127)

Well, I’m used to this sort of thing by now, so I’m thinking, “yeah, yeah, I didn’t discuss West and Dyson on black nationalism or hooks on feminism, or the relation between contemporary black intellectuals and black popular culture, or the relation between cultural politics and public policy.  And even when I suggested some kind of organic relation between contemporary black intellectuals and a past of collective struggle, I got myself accused of ‘liberal racialism.’ But I knew all that already!  Where’s this ‘new action block’ I heard about in the title?”

Oh, wait, here it comes:

Bérubé’s and Boynton’s “discovery” of black public intellectuals in 1995 was a fraudulent journalistic invention that ranks with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence.  Their claims of discovery, the assertions of the newness of black, public, intellectual life, allow them to tell and sell their stories.  Boynton wonders how substantial the legacy of his group of black public intellectuals will be, as if he did not already know that two centuries of substantial work by black thinkers in the Americas already exists, and then he questions whether this legacy “will be compromised” by their media popularity: “As public intellectuals gain greater access to mainstream culture,” Boynton asks, “do they become more important thinkers or only better known?” But while Boynton speculates about the ways in which the work of black public intellectuals could be compromised by the culture industry, he and Bérubé remain totally unselfconscious of the ways in which they are trading in “blackness” in the journalistic marketplace with their newly “discovered,” designer-brand black intellectuals. (128)

Trading in “blackness”—but not in the manner of the old auction block, see.  The new auction block involves people like me and Boynton unselfconsciously engaging in fraudulent journalistic inventions in order to tell and sell our stories.  OK, so now that’s all cleared up.

Well, I don’t know.  I think Boynton’s question about public intellectuals and mainstream culture is a pretty good question for public intellectuals of any color, tint, or stripe, and I’m not seeing how it erases any history.  In fact, I might note that Carby addresses a version of the very same question later in her essay: “In an era in which ideas are of little value, the only possible ‘public’ role for intellectuals is circumscribed by the extent to which they can perform for the market” (132-33).  And I have to say I think Carby’s characterization of my essay as the Second Coming of Columbus is a teeny bit harsh, seeing as how my essay actually says things like this:

Of course, there have been black intellectuals on these shores from 1619 or so, and Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells were about as effective in their day as any nineteenth-century public intellectual could hope to be.  What was lacking, until very recently, was a black public sphere of commensurate size.  Even in the nineteen-twenties, when writers of the Harlem Renaissance set out to theorize about the relation between lumpen black folk and what Zora Neale Hurston wryly called the “niggerati,” black intellectuals were playing to a small crowd indeed.  As Langston Hughes put it, “The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance.  And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.”

Until the nineteen-sixties, America’s nationally known black intellectuals tended also to be its nationally known black novelists—the triumvirate of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, two of whom eventually chose exile over life in their native land.  Meanwhile, within the tiny public arena bounded by segregation, African-American intellectuals like Oliver Cromwell Cox, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, J. Saunders Redding, and Carter G. Woodson were creating African-American history, sociology, and literary criticism in black colleges, black journals like Phylon and The Crisis, or black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Afro-American (published in five Eastern cities).  But as long as segregation prevailed in higher education and in the publishing world it was quite easy for white Americans to believe that—Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin aside—the most important books on race in this country were written by white Americans.

I don’t see how this amounts to a claim to have “discovered” black intellectuals in 1995, and I don’t think Carby does either—as she acknowledges in an aside: “Later in [his] article Boynton is forced to admit”—by whom? one wonders—“just as Bérubé conceded in his review, that contemporary black intellectuals are not, of course, the first generation of black public intellectuals” (127).  So I guess you could say that at some point in her essay Carby is forced to admit, or merely concedes, that Boynton and I did not in fact claim to have discovered black intellectuals. But it didn’t prevent her from leveling the charge of “fraudulent journalistic invention” anyway.

But hey, I understand what’s going on here.  As it is in blog comment sections, so it is in the world of serious scholarship: the person who comes very late to the pile-on has to take the invective to the next level.  So it’s not sufficient, any longer, to accuse me of starry-eyed celebrity-mongering.  Now I have to be accused of crimes that rank with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence—and, oh yeah, the auction block.  Well, ain’t that a shame, since I learned some of what I know about Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper as black public intellectuals from reading and teaching Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood back in 1990-91, and I’ve been an admirer of Carby’s work ever since.  But Professor Carby has indeed re-set the bar at the next level, and perhaps in another decade or so I will learn that my little New Yorker essay was the journalistic equivalent of distributing smallpox-infested blankets to the editors of Phylon and The Crisis.  Only worse, for being totally unselfconscious.


Posted by Michael on 05/14 at 07:03 AM
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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Other priorities

Oh, all right, I suppose this blog can’t be all hockey playoffs all the time.  I have a nice long Internets-breaking post in progress, and will post it before I leave for Halifax and Marlboro.  But I’m not going to post it today, because I have other priorities!  Instead I’ll simply offer you this morsel from non-hockey action last night. You’ve probably seen it already on one of those big blogs, or maybe even on the teevee device itself, but what the hell.  It is enjoyable in places.

Much as I like the idea of Cheney shutting up and going home, I have to say it’s only my third favorite option.  Number two is Cheney mouthing off continually and offering to demonstrate his own personal enhanced-interrogation techniques on the hosts of the Sunday morning shows, and number one is Cheney being hustled off to the International Criminal Court.  My friends on the left remind me that the International Criminal Court will only be a truly international criminal court when it finds itself with an American war criminal in the dock.  Well, now seems like a good time for that.

h/t Firedoglake.

Update:  Lawrence Wilkerson follows up with a most compelling guest-post at TPM Cafe.

Posted by Michael on 05/13 at 10:14 AM
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Monday, May 11, 2009

Off to see game six

in Ye Olde Iglooe with a couple of friends.

It really is an odd little place, originally designed to house the Civic Light Opera.  (More fun facts here.) But I can’t believe I got face-price tix on the Internets!  Thanks to the Penguins for putting 2000 seats on sale at 1 pm on Saturday, and thanks to my trusty Lenovo X61 for navigating the tubes for me at three minutes past 1.  We’ll be in section C11, if you’re watching on the “Against” channel.  We’ll be the guys wearing white.

And while I’m packing up:  though I mostly agree with Scott about the silliness of national anthems before sporting events, and I agree that the Chicago version by Jim Cornelison and twenty thousand crazed screaming people is pretty stunning, I just want to put in a nice word for this young woman:

I remember this well:  it was almost two years ago, game four of the Senators-Ducks final, and when Ms. Morissette’s name was announced, I cringed, thinking, “I know, I know, she’s a local Ottawa kid and they love her, but Holy Shrieking Greataunt of Moloch, this is going to suck even worse than anthems usually suck.  This is going to have all kinds of vibrato and bizarre emoting and maybe even ‘thank you frailty, thank you consequence’ in it.  I must go and get a beer right now.” So I missed her “Star Spangled Banner,” and returned for “O Canada,” the first twenty seconds of which seemed to be everything I’d feared.

And then!  “Car ton bras sait porter l’épée, il sait porter la croix/ Ton histoire est une épopée des plus brillants exploits!” In Ottawa!  I wasn’t expecting that.  And she does a great job!  She actually sounds much better in French.  And then she has the crowd sing the next two lines (back to English)!  And she’s like totally charming about the whole thing right down to the final bow!  So yeah, national anthems before sporting events are silly. But just this once, I was pleasantly surprised.  And as she left the ice, I said, for that, Alanis Morissette, everything is forgiven.  Alas, Disneyland won that one 3-2 and then crushed Ottawa at home.

There probably won’t be any “O Canada” in the finals this year, though.  Eardrum-bursting Star Spangled Banners from Jim Cornelison and twenty thousand crazed screaming people, perhaps.  That would be fun!  The last time Chicago won the Cup I was crouched in the fetal position, being a fetus.

OK, off to Pittsburgh.  This series has been absurdly exciting so far, and I expect tonight to be, how you say, une épopée des plus brillants exploits.

Posted by Michael on 05/11 at 10:26 AM
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