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Thursday, February 05, 2004

I give all liberals a bad name

Two months ago I published an essay about how I dealt with a disruptive conservative student in one of my undergraduate honors seminars. This week, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran three letters in response to my essay. Two of them, I was pleased to see, were beautifully self-undermining. But one of them held my attention.  Before you read it, keep in mind that (a) I gave this conservative student an A for the course, (b) I repeatedly prevented other students from ganging up on him, and (c) I explicitly described him like so: “He was forceful, intelligent, and articulate. Sometimes he was witty, and he was always knowledgeable about cyberpunk and postmodern science fiction. Often, however, he was obstreperous and out of bounds.” OK, now here’s the letter:

To the Editor:

Although I, too, consider myself a liberal, I was dismayed by Michael Bérubé’s essay. Rather than debunking the argument that university campuses are biased against conservative students, Bérubé actually lends credibility to this notion.

Unfortunately, Bérubé assumes a self-righteous, holier-than-thou persona that grates on people’s nerves and gives all liberals a bad name. He characterizes himself as the patient, long-suffering professor forced to make “reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of ‘reasonableness’ are significantly different” from his. ... In striking contrast, anyone who disagrees with Bérubé is characterized far less charitably.  Accuracy in Academia is a “slightly nutty group.” David Horowitz is “exaggerating hysterically.” Stanley Kurtz’s position is “paranoid.” ...

Which brings me to “John,” described as “a large white student,” who made the semester so uncomfortable for everyone in the class. Bérubé makes “John” sound like a difficult student. Very likely he was. Yet I have to wonder whether a student who behaved the same way but reinforced the professor’s beliefs would also have been considered “out of bounds.” Moreover, would this article have been possible if it had been based on a conservative student who was not so outspoken? Are all conservatives exaggerating, hysterical, paranoid, and obstreperous? This is what the article seems to imply. . .

Dana Zimbleman
Assistant Professor of English
Jefferson College
Hillsboro, Mo.

Let me paraphrase this letter, if I may-- I received about 50 or 60 just like it back in December, and all of them accused me of vilifying “anyone who disagrees with me”:

I consider myself a liberal, but honestly, I’m far more concerned that Michael Bérubé said that David Horowitz was “exaggerating hysterically” than that Bérubé’s student interrupted his class in order to defend the Japanese-American internment camps created during World War II. When Bérubé’s student said that the internments were justified, yes, Bérubé treated him with respect while disagreeing with him and trying to bring the class discussion back to the novel at hand. But when Bérubé calls Horowitz “hysterical,” I fear that he calls into question the very standards of reason he is invoking!  Indeed, he is giving all liberals a bad name!  I have to think that if the student were a different kind of student, this article would have been very different as well!

My reply to this kind of disingenuousness is basically . . . how shall I put this? --grow up. As for Hysterical Horowitz, I was talking about Horowitz’s claim that “99 percent of all commencement speakers are Democrats, liberals, or Greens.” That claim is right on the bottom of this page of Horowitz’s FrontPage online magazine, and it’s based on his Center for the Study of Popular Culture’s “study” of 32 campuses (there are 3500 colleges in the United States). The campuses chosen by the CSPC are places like Amherst, Berkeley, Brown, Oberlin, Smith, Wellesley, and Wesleyan; and David’s list of “liberals” includes (I am not making this up) Cokie Roberts, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Claire Shipman, Judy Woodruff, and Thomas Friedman, whereas speakers like Helmut Kohl are listed as “neutral.” If I say that this list represents a wingnut’s view of the world, am I being unfair?  (Also see David’s “executive summary,” entitled “One Last, Leftist Lecture”-- yes, that’s right, leftist indoctrination at the hands of Katie Couric and Anna Quindlen, in a commencement address, no less.) Seriously, this is kind of stuff you see from people who go around complaining that cookbooks are full of liberal bias because they so often say “season liberally” instead of “season conservatively” or “use a liberal dash of salt” instead of “hoard your salt conservatively, as Hayek advises.”

Really, people, if “99 percent of all commencement speakers are Democrats, liberals or Greens” is not an hysterical exaggeration, the phrase has no meaning.

But more important, over the past two months I’ve come to realize that something very funny is going on here.  Either (this is option A) there are some conservatives out there who sincerely have no idea how nutty and vile some of their number really are (don’t worry, I have an example coming right up), or (this would be option B) there’s actually something like a coordinated two-step program at work, whereby nutty and/or vile far-right wingnuts say X, and then people like me call them on it, and then right behind the wingnuts come these sober voices of reason tsk-tsking that anyone would call conservatives “nutty” and “vile,” and wondering whether this out-of-control leftist anger is going to tear apart the country.

For example.  Over at the National Review Online, John Derbyshire has come up with a fun new game, making up lists of “dead villains” he and his readers would like to exhume and hang.  You know, digging up dead bodies and hanging them-- “gibbeting a corpse,” they call it, as was done with Oliver Cromwell some years ago.  Hey kids, it’s not a foul, ghoulish, neo-medieval exercise, it’s the hip new conservative meme!

And guess who these people are joking about?  Leading the nominations are are Lyndon Johnson, Edward Said, Walter Duranty, Pierre Trudeau, and Margaret Mead.  No, I am not making this up, either.  Derbyshire also reproduces one reader’s list that includes a number of former Supreme Court justices, including Thurgood Marshall, although he doesn’t say whether his reader would like to burn and castrate the corpse of Marshall as well as hanging him (fie on this McCarthyite “political correctness” that doesn’t permit us to speak openly of lynching dead Negroes!)

OK, so I’ll take the bait, as I’ve taken it before: yes, Reed Irvine, the founder of Accuracy in Academia, is indeed slightly nutty.  David Horowitz’s claim about commencement speakers is indeed an hysterical exaggeration.  Stanley Kurtz’s testimony to Congress last summer, in which he claimed that Title VI area-studies programs are dominated by the work of Edward Said, does indeed rely on a paranoid logic.  And, last but not least, John Derbyshire’s little gibbeting-fantasy is completely @#%&ing deranged.  I hope I’m not giving all liberals a bad name in saying that Derbyshire is completely @#%&ing deranged, because I think it’s pretty obvious that Derbyshire is completely @#%&ing deranged.

Now I’ll get another fifty or sixty letters about how I claim to uphold “standards of reason” but I have a terrible habit of slandering and denigrating anyone who disagrees with me.  Bring ‘em on, folks.  Also, don’t forget to claim that I have suggested that all conservatives are mentally ill!

Posted by Michael on 02/05 at 03:57 PM
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