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Monday, October 02, 2006

Discourse and power and blog comments

A long post about blogs and comments and discourse and also blogs.

Well, Friday turned out to be kind of weird.  I spent the afternoon doing a bunch of errands that had accumulated during the week like so many early leaves in the front lawn (including shipping my mother her birthday present a week late—September is a very busy month for us Bérubés), and by four or so I was feeling like I’d caught up with things.

Then late in the afternoon, that sneaky Scott Eric Kaufman, who keeps changing the spelling of his last name just to vex me, informed me that my campaign to win uniform admiration and all world power had hit a snag, and he sent me a url to prove it.  For it happens to be the case that in my very own discipline, there are a bunch of radical theorists whom I have been steadily pissing off for years now, and they have finally gotten together and decided to do something about it!  Why are they so pissed off, you ask?  Oh, pretty much for the usual reasons.  The most recent is that one of them had a bad dream about a liberal, and wrote about it on the Internets. The first commenter on the dream replied:

So who’s going to pull the stick out from up Berube’s ass—again—and explain to him that somebody who says “We are all Hezbollah now” is simply engaging in creative hyperbole. Isn’t that one of those liberal arts values that he’s always wetting himself over in his own space ? Oh, never mind. I’m just crushed that he didn’t manage to work the prospect of the future Constitutional Convention into it again. Yeah, we should all be salivating for that, Mike. After all, once Hillary gets into the Oval Office, she’ll probably rig it so you’re chief gatekeeper over there. You know, in gratitude for all you’ve done to hold the liberal banner of white-gloved, civilized bombing so terribly high. [snerk] Whatever.

Frankly, I think this is kind of mean.  Because, you know, I’ve always been completely honest on this blog about my inability to understand or perform complex speech acts like “we are all Hezbollah now,” and that’s why this blog always says, straightforwardly, that it’s not the kind of blog that says something it’s not saying, or says it’s not saying something it is saying. 

So you can imagine my reaction when I came across some of that creative hyperbole in the very next comment!

Someone needs to hurt Michael Bérubé, very soon and very badly.

That, or I’d like Mikey boy to go visit my now-incommunicado internets friend in Alabama who’s been living on disability for the past two years and who just suffered a stroke and is confined to a 3rd rate nursing home to tell him that his Green vote in ‘00 was the act of a self-indulgent upper middle class purist. My friend’s left side is paralyzed (how...symbolic!) but his right is still OK, and I think he could lay Bérubé out even from his wheelchair.

I wouldn’t want to mess with this “et alia” fellow, myself.  He looks very tough and noir-like.  But nevertheless, this comment made me a little bit angry.  I would never tell a Nader ‘00 voter that his vote was the act of a self-indulgent upper middle class purist!  Maybe Eric Alterman would say that, but not me.  I would say other things entirely.  Like: Nader was once a great standardbearer for progressive causes, but in 2000 was a terrible candidate who not only decisively threw the election to Bush but by his own account, actively wanted Bush to win, and who has developed some very creepy politics of his own, as he explained in a 2004 interview with Pat Buchanan.  (If I’m reading that first commenter’s reference to a Constitutional Convention properly, a lot of these Naderites’ most recent anger at me stems from this post back in March, in which I pointed out that Nader had told the New York Times in November 2000 that he “did not in any case believe for a moment that Mr. Bush would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. ‘The first back alley death, and the Republican Party is in deep trouble and they know it,’ he said.  He described the party’s opposition to abortion as just for show, ‘just for Pat Robertson.’” Discussion of that one spilled out onto various blogs in the usual blog-rhizomatic fashion, though I stayed out of the comments deep in my own comment thread because they got really, really weird after the 150 mark. And if you’ll click on “very creepy politics” above, you’ll find Ralph telling Buchanan, “I believe in choice. I don’t think government should tell women to have children or not to have children. I am also against feticide. If doctors think it is a fetus, that should be banned. It is a medical decision.” Not that that’s incoherent or anything.)

So, once again with emphasis, for all those of you who want to re-fight 2000: Nader was a lousy candidate on the merits.  And anyone who voted Green/ Nader in the belief that they were “building a movement” was simply delusional.  The 2000 Greens won about one-eighth of Ross Perot’s vote in 1992 (one-third of Perot ‘96!), and Nader abandoned the party immediately after taking it over.  The Greens’ 2004 ticket sucked too.  But of course I don’t mind people who despised the Gore/ Lieberman ticket; I despised it too, and as a former member of the Citizens Party and the New Party, I’m all for non-delusional third parties that run good candidates in local races where they have a shot at actually participating meaningfully in electoral politics.  Last but not least, if you were a disaffected lefty who didn’t want to participate meaningfully in electoral politics and voted for David McReynolds in 2000, you’re OK with me.  This blog has never had a bad word to say about you McReynolds voters.  Never!  Because at least you folks didn’t have the movement-building delusional thing going against you, or the Nader-is-God personality cult thing, which, like all personality cults, creeps me the hell out.

But what about the “someone needs to hurt Michael Bérubé, very soon and very badly” part of et alia’s remark, you say?  Well, I think that’s just some of that “creative hyperbole” I’ve been hearing about.  So I took a moment out of my busy Friday afternoon to reply, saying,

Well, I guess I’d understand the concept of “disability” better after I’d been hurt very badly. So there’s that.

Best wishes to all thugs,

That comment provoked this witty riposte in return:

Either you’re really Bérubé and you’ve just proved how incredibly petty you are, or you’re just a troll—

—waitaminit. I think that’s distinction without a difference.

And this was so sharp and incisive that it made me apologize:

You’re quite right, et alia. I apologize for my pettiness in clicking on the link Scott Kaufmann sent me, and coming upon the Two Minutes Hate In Progress. You may resume your violent little fantasies now. Be sure to theorize them in terms of power differentials and triangulation, etc.


The Kaufmann with two n’s—well, that’s just a little joke Scott and I share, because he keeps changing his name and all.

Anyway, I’m glad to report that et alia has since taken up my suggestion, and has been rigorously theorizing his affect and reflecting on his Nietzscheanness and so forth, and deciding that Scott Kaufman and I are “pathological” and “incapable of being in such an emotive state that would enable them to either handle polemic or realize that ‘don’t triangulate’ is a legitimate critique of their strategy.” ‘Cause you know me, folks.  If there’s one thing I have trouble understanding, aside from complex hyperbolic speech acts, it’s “polemic.”

Not long after this, the sneaky Scott Eric Kaufman himself wrote to apologize for ruining my lovely day.  Pish-posh! I replied.  I told Scott that he did not ruin my day.  I had lately had my head swelled by a great review of my book (followed by bracing criticism of why Rawls has a better account of deliberation than I do, too), and I needed to be reminded that somebody out there needs to hurt me.  Besides, this kind of thing just goes with the territory.


You see, some of the fiercest Theory bloggers and commenters on the Theory tubes of the Internets are the Young Radicals of my discipline, and their experiments in “polemic” have been going on for quite some time now.  These are radical young radicals, at that—so radical that some of them are angry at Democrats, unlike any other liberal-progressive bloggers anywhere in blogtopia (yes!  Skippy invented that phrase!).  So I’m a natural target for a certain constituency, you understand.  And it’s good to see that the kids have the fire in the belly!  They remind me of my younger days, they do.  Why, heh-heh-heh, when I was a young theory whippersnapper I was saying precisely the same thing about my professors at the University of Virginia.  One afternoon I was attending a meeting in a secret room in Wilson Hall with my theory comrades in the Theory Group.  E. D. Hirsch had just taught a course in the history of literary theory, and he had said some things about Nietzsche that we young’uns didn’t much like.  My friend Sluggo decided that we had to grab him the next time he came down the hall and apply the choke hold to him.  “Yes yes,” agreed my friend Bluto.  “Only when Don Hirsch is gasping for air will The People finally breathe free.” Those 80s theory wars were good times, oh my.  Of course, we didn’t put our little fantasies on the Internet tubes where people like Hirsch could read them.  That’s because the Internet tubes hadn’t been made public yet. 

But that was long ago, when I was young and had a lean and hungry look.  I’ve gotten old and fat since then, and I’ve come to enjoy the advantages of the Executive Faculty Golf Courses in Champaign and State College.  And that’s how I know that these young radicals will come around, too, when they learn the game and join the club.  So if I run into this “et alia” fellow at the MLA this year, I’m not going to snub him; I’m going to invite him up to the private suites and show him where we keep the good bourbon.  Then I’ll introduce his friends to Hillary.  And then we’ll have a few laughs.  Because down deep, these are sweet kids.  A little crazy and mixed-up sometimes, but good kids at heart.  You gotta love spunk like theirs.  I mean, sure, they hate liberals.  Sure, they think that liberals are milquetoasts and punching bags.  Sure, they flip out when liberals don’t behave as meekly and tamely as they think liberals are supposed to behave.  And sure, they have an unhealthy obsession with Hillary.  But I’d never go around saying that they have anything in common with the far right, because that would be triangulating!  So let’s just say the kids are all right, and leave it at that.

But I can’t say the same about this one “Turbulent Velvet” fellow who hangs out with that crowd.  He’s another matter entirely.  He’s not a graduate student; he’s a professor with a professor job.  And he seems to me to be full of all kinds of conflicts lately.  Here’s his contribution to this discussion:


Look at the comments section.

To get at the nuances of thuggishness involved here, consider that Berube is receiving kudos right now for his book about teaching the liberal arts. He adduces evidence that liberal professors are in fact very patient and fair with alternative views, do not oppress or hector, and thus he assauges conservative fears about classroom indoctrination. His evidence? His own narration of his experiences patiently teaching, in which he is the star. I think instantly of Allan Bloom’s little teaching anecdotes in which he dispatched student naivetes with such aplomb, and I think of a grad student friend who called this sort of thing “fungo writing”: you can always hit the ball when you pitch to yourself.

Don’t just consider how Berube’s trivial, condescending retorts to John, hidden away in some corner of the internet which he thinks will remain hidden, undermine the self-presentation of his mature pedagogical tactics in his new book, always nurturing his students. It would be amusing enough to ask him whether, as an academic celebrity and opinion leader, he thought the infinite fairfairmindedness of his role as pedagogue suddenly ended when students turned 22 and the tuition was no longer being paid—after which his grandfatherly guidance could turn to dismissive third-rate Usenet sneers toward positions with which he disagreed. After all, if leftist thought suffers from an “infantile” disorder, why is there one gentle pedagogical role in guiding leftists to greater maturity the classroom and another more elminationist one on the Internet? Presumably one answer might be that at 22 all students have had their educational run (because everybody goes to college, and “citizen” = “student”!) and now have to grow the fuck up and take care of themselves. That would be a telling answer if, like me, you had the kung fu to elicit it.

Well, dear friends, my book does not suggest that I always nurture my students.  And whether or not Professor Velvet has done any kung fu fighting (which I find a little bit frightening), I encourage you to check the url to “Maxims and Reflections” he provides here—the one in which I allegedly undermine Professor Velvet’s version of my self-presentation.  Because the funny thing is that I’m not in that comment thread.  I suppose it could be said that my very absence from that thread somehow undermines my book’s argument with regard to liberalism and democratic deliberation.  But really, if you go looking through that comment thread for evidence of my thuggishness, you’re going to waste sixty to ninety seconds of your valuable time, just as I did (well, I did want to see if someone was posting comments under my name).

No matter!  Professor Velvet goes on to theorize the power differentials involved in professors commenting on the blogs of graduate students:

But there’s another level here, which is that John is a grad student, and Berube could harm his job prospects if he wanted. (Is John too sanguine that academics with Berube’s principled commitments would never do such a thing, or is he just brave?) When you consider the real power differential at play in this exchange you see pretty deeply into Berube, not least because he is following vanity links to anything that mentions him—and then sneering down comments on a student weblog. It also demonstrates that the high contempt is not just a response to a perceived immaturity of polemic, as it supposedly was to my post at Scott’s. He behaves the same way if there is “leftist” disagreement, even if it is expressed more moderately.

I’ve moved among, and had my dissertation supervised by, people who are much larger academic celebrities than Michael Berube. That experience would not lead me to say very much that is good about academic celebrities and the gap between the political morality displayed in their work and what gets played out in their everyday relations. But I am pretty certain that the celebrities that I knew, if challenged in a little blog post by a graduate student at another university, would simply not answer because the power dimension made that small-minded and more than a little irresponsible. There’s a petty arriviste quality to Berube’s need to defend and extend his turf everywhere, even to people over whom he has real power—in fact to make sure they grasp the multidimensionality of his superiority. It’s something that’s been said about Moulitsas. I’ve been thinking about what it is about liberal culture that throws this kind of leader over and over again.

It’s possible that Professor Velvet has been pretty badly scarred by moving among, and having his dissertation supervised by, academic celebrities much larger than myself.  Because he seems to think that “academic celebrities” should simply ignore the lower orders, and he seems to be rather appalled that I don’t behave like his idea of an academic celebrity.  That’s what the “arriviste” line is about: I don’t conduct myself in the manner of the true royalty of my profession. Well, he’s got me there!  Everyone who knows me would back him up on that.  Though the idea that I would harm the job prospects of some graduate student at some other university is just bizarre beyond belief.

And yet there are a few points worth engaging in this strange comment, all the same.

First, to give Professor Velvet the benefit of the doubt, he may be thinking of this August 12 thread at “Maxims and Reflections,” to which Matt Christie of Long Sunday and pas-au-delà directed me not long after it was posted (apparently because it was posted by a former member of the Long Sunday theory crew).  There is indeed a great deal of thuggishness and rudeness on that thread, but it doesn’t come from me, and it doesn’t come from the blog’s owner either. It comes mainly from commenters asking “why would the elimination of the state of Israel be such an unworthy goal?” and pointing out some of the flaws in my criticisms of Hezbollah’s leftist fans.  (Those last two hyperlinks will give you some idea of why I stopped contributing to that discussion.  One can only be called a moron so many times before one concludes that one is a moron for sticking around.)

Now, why did I bother replying to anyone on that blog in the first place?  Because Professor Velvet has a point—surely some academic “celebrities,” if challenged in a little blog post by a graduate student at another university, would simply not answer because the power dimension made that small-minded and more than a little irresponsible.  It’s possible that Professor Velvet doesn’t understand the whole “public sphere” thing, in which people debate each other regardless of rank or station, but I suppose that’s all right.  The truth is that I ignore the vast majority of taunts and challenges I get from all quarters, left and right and other, especially the ones from people who base their critiques of me and my comrades on the fact that they saw the face of Noam Chomsky in their grilled cheese sandwich.  (That happens about every two to three months on average.  Ask Roxanne!) And I’ve ignored all the radical players in this latest blogodrama for a couple of years, too, the turbulent Professor Velvet included.  But back in August, I did defend some of my criticisms of the Hezbollah Left on some Hezbollah Left websites; and in the case of John of “Maxims and Reflections,” I did think it was worth pointing out to him that just because I don’t believe 9/11 conspiracy theories doesn’t mean I am quite so stupid as to inhabit what he describes as a “cheering political paradigm in which things basically are as George Stephanapholous would have you believe they are.” At the time, I didn’t know what John’s status in the profession was; I knew only that I’d seen his work on Long Sunday, and that I’d been apprised of his post by one of the Long Sundayans.  I know that the Long Sunday crew and the Valve crew like to give each other a hard time for all kinds of theoretical and political and other reasons, regardless of everyone’s rank or station.  I understood that John’s post was a reply to my series defending the democratic left, which began here in early August.  And when someone writes a criticism of my work that claims,

there is a powerful undertow toward power in the discourse of the “democratic” “left” that I finally find so dismaying that I have no choice but to reject the thing root and branch. Because few people they accuse of defending Milosevic or Hussein or Nasrallah or any other Hitler-Of-The-Month has defended these people with anything like the vigor and passion with which the “democratic” “left” has implicitly defended Bush, Clinton or Bush.

I have to say that I find the second sentence of the remark profoundly mistaken, no matter who makes it—the merest graduate student or the most fabulous celebrity.  Mistaken about the vigor and the passion of the Milosevic defenders on the far left, and mistaken about the democratic left’s relation to Bush, Clinton and Bush.  Look, people want to believe 9/11 was an inside job, they’re gonna believe that 9/11 was an inside job.  But whatever they believe and why, they still have an obligation not to make complete mishmash of the beliefs of the democratic left.


Still, Professor Velvet raises an important ethical question about professors commenting on graduate students’ blogs.  (Of course, I would never try to harm a graduate student’s career—or, indeed, anyone’s career—just because he or she had posted something critical of me on a blog, any more than I have ever tried to harm someone’s career for writing far-leftish stuff about me in print.  Or any kind of stuff!  But I’ll say so in so many words just to make that clear.) But the really, really mind-bendingly weird thing about Professor Velvet’s blog comment about my blog comment is that this round of metabloggy unpleasantness got started last week when Professor Velvet himself showed up unbidden on Scott Eric Kaufman’s blog, hijacking Scott’s post about Joan Didion and haranguing Scott at length, concluding his first rant (of two) with a three-paragraph parenthesis that ends like so:

Please focus and listen carefully: it is possible, at a basic human level, to find this set of rhetorical moves cowardly and morally disgusting without having any institutionally “leftist” commitments that might provide you boys with the hook for the easy ‘infantile’ dismissal. Kind of like your basic human concern about ‘hypocrisy,’ hey Scott? Yet I haven’t found a single alpha liberal on the internets, not one, who can treat an argument like this with respect or even have the self-discipline to momentarily stem the logorrheic tide of GreenpuppetNadertyedyeCounterSDSPunch attribution insinuation & hatemongering if someone should try to make it. As a simple and linear result, my philosophical & moral assessment of American academic liberals, O let me tell ya, has changed a great deal over the last five years.

I learned of this comment early last week.  At first I was going to dash off an email to Scott telling him not to worry about being called a liberal, but when I saw the full-bore aggression of Professor Velvet’s “intervention” on Scott’s blog, I decided that a private email wouldn’t suffice, so I replied to that thread instead.  Because, as some of you know, I really can’t stand academic bullies.  And since Professor Velvet’s comment opens with the extraordinarily petulant remark, “I believe I pointed this out in our last Burkeborkin’ go-around about ‘symbolic politics,’ Scott, and this confirms my suspicion that it didn’t register any more than anything else I said in that exchange,” I realized he’d had some history of badgering Scott, and was now getting very upset that Scott still hadn’t come around to understanding Velvet’s wisdom.  That’s why Professor Velvet told Scott to “focus and listen carefully.”

And I found Professor Velvet’s comment objectionable for another reason:  it’s the standard foolishness about how it is absolutely imperative for radicals to distinguish themselves from liberals but utterly cowardly and immoral and disgusting etc. for liberals to distinguish themselves from radicals.  At the time, I didn’t even stop to think that it was the comment of a professor badgering a graduate student on the student’s own blog. 

But it turns out that this kind of badgering is perfectly OK, you see, because even though Professor Velvet is a professor and Scott is a graduate student, Professor Velvet was merely playing a kind of fun rhetorical game, as he explains in his third comment on the thread:  “I take full responsibility for the polemic, since I did want to see how that played out too & that was just as much of a priority.” (Remember, liberals like Scott and me, we don’t understand polemic.)

So apparently the power differential is no problem so long as the professor in question is anonymous or Turbulent, and takes responsibility for wanting to see how his polemic plays out on a graduate student’s blog.  (As he explained in a later thread, “that was the kind of thing I was testing, how far inducted into the academic myopia Scott was.”) And that, dear friends, is why I’m not terribly concerned with et alia and others, and why I’m perfectly willing to show them where we keep the good bourbon.  But I am genuinely worried about the health of this Turbulent Velvet fellow, who follows his turbulent comments on a graduate student’s blog with a scathing critique of my comment on a graduate student’s blog.  When I asked around about him, I was informed that he’s just had a child and isn’t getting much sleep lately.  I know how that feels, O let me tell ya!  So if his friends would be so kind as to bring him some nice herbal tea and some soft pillows, I think that would probably help.

In the meantime, I certainly don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that, as Professor Velvet claims, I would actually prefer to leave any of these exchanges “hidden away in some corner of the internet.” I’m quite happy to have all these comments and replies aired in the open, and happy to reproduce ‘em and link to ‘em right here on my very own blog. 

And here’s what I’m wondering about with regard to perceived power imbalances on academic blogs.  On the one hand, we all know that the virtual public sphere of the blogosphere is only a virtual public sphere.  We also know, if we’ve been taught the right things to say about Habermas and his ilk, that the “real” public sphere is just a liberal bourgeois mystification that obscures relations of power and domination.  But on the other hand, when it comes to relations of power on academic blogs, I sometimes think that there are some people out there who just really like saying a lot of foul shit about people on the Internets (in the interests of conducting their experiments into why liberals don’t understand polemic, you understand), and who proceed to get really, really pissed when the people in question call them on it, at which point they unburden themselves of scrupulous—and strangely liberal—theories of power imbalances and bloggy responsibility. 

What do you think?

Posted by Michael on 10/02 at 07:50 AM
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