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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Liberal Thursday II

Readers are demanding to know why I haven’t said anything on the blog about Alan Wolfe’s New York Times review of Liberal Arts. “Michael,” they say, “we come here for snark and raillery and nasty, indiscriminate mockery, and you’re not delivering. Why is that? Is it because you’re a wuss, or is it because you’re a wuss?”

The real reason, dear demanding readers, is that I am a wuss.  I was also immensely relieved by the review.

Yes, relieved. Because although I think that Sam Tanenhaus is an exceptionally smart fellow (his long August 6 review of Richard Hofstadter’s life and career was quite good), and that he’s done wonderful things with the Book Review’s coverage of contemporary fiction and (especially) poetry, I know that there have been some very strange review assignments lately. By this I mean that some books by liberal-progressive writers have been given to reviewers manifestly incapable of filing a reasonably substantive review. I honestly don’t know how or why this kind of thing happens; the Book Review is a complete mystery to me.

And because it is a mystery, once I got the very very good news that the book would, indeed, be reviewed by the Times, I began slaughtering chickens in my back yard each morning at dawn, chanting “owa owa tagu siam,” which, loosely translated, means “please don’t let my book meet the fate of Katha Pollitt’s Virginity or Death! when it was reviewed by Ana Marie Cox, or Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell when it was reviewed by Leon Wieseltier. Please, please, O spirits, let not my poor little book be crushed like a bug by sneering incomprehension.”

You laugh at me, sure. You call me a superstitious old fool. You ask (as Janet asked) whether I cleaned up after each beheaded and gutted chicken. But the simple fact remains that my spirit-propitiatin’ hard work paid off. Sidney Blumenthal and Lewis Lapham thought I was a fool: “what a fool that Bérubé is, slaughtering chickens and chanting,” they said. Well, just look what happened to their books last Sunday. I rest my case.

So I’m not going to complain about that review.  Not at all!  I’ll leave the complaint department to the formidable Ophelia Benson, who composed one of her acid, savage, and acerbic posts about the review two weeks ago.  That Ms. Benson certainly is feisty!  I hear she’s working on a feistesgeschichte, or “history of spiritedness,” and I can’t wait to see the results.  Me, I’m just grateful that Alan Wolfe said some very nice, very generous things about the book and about the kind of teacher I might be.

Instead, I’ll just point to two moments that are kind of, how you say, mistaken.  Just to keep the record straight about what What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? does and does not say, you understand.

Moment one, in which Wolfe attributes to me the claim that

There is “more than a grain of truth” in the charge that Middle Eastern studies departments are generally biased against Israel.

I don’t actually say this.  The phrase “biased against Israel” does not appear in the book, and I don’t make any sweeping generalizations about Middle Eastern studies programs.  That’s partly because I don’t know enough about them to do so, and partly because I wouldn’t paint Middle Eastern studies with such a broad brush.  In the book, anyway.  Here on the blog, as you all know, I am not averse to using a big wide paint roller now and then.

So what do I say about Middle Eastern studies in the book?  I don’t remember.  You’ll have to check for yourself!

Moment two, in which Wolfe writes that my arguments against David Horowitz “do not reassure” him:

It is instructive to learn that anthropology is not a discipline composed entirely of like-minded people because left-liberals do not always agree with poststructuralist Marxists, but this hardly addresses the widespread perception that cultural anthropology has little room for those who might believe that America’s presence in a third-world country might bring about some good.

OK, there are actually two problems here.  The first has to do with anthropology itself, a discipline with regard to which, I admit, I have not considered the importance of scholars’ positions on American foreign policy.  But then, the last four anthropologists I’ve spoken to work on (a) rural Ireland, (b) immigrants in New Jersey, (c) contemporary Japan, and (d) the social meaning of prenatal testing in the United States.  I don’t know what any of them thinks about America’s presence in this or that third-world country.  I imagine that when Wolfe thinks about anthropology, he’s not thinking about any of the anthropologists who might be working elsewhere than in the third world.  But who knows what Professor Wolfe was thinking in this paragraph? 

Not me—because, as it happens, my book never says anything about left-liberals and poststructuralist Marxists in anthropology departments.  So when Professor Wolfe says “it is instructive to learn that anthropology is not a discipline composed entirely of like-minded people because left-liberals do not always agree with poststructuralist Marxists,” I have to imagine that he is thinking of some book other than mine in which it is instructive (though, finally, not reassuring) to learn this.

The only time I speak about the plurality of intellectual perspectives in anthropology departments, I refer to the well-known (and, in some cases, profoundly debilitating) divide between cultural anthropologists and physical anthropologists:

English is not, despite its reputation, uniquely fractious:  in my eight years of involvement with humanities institutes, I’ve had ringside seats for fights between Latin Americanists and Iberianists in Spanish departments; digital media designers and oil painters in art departments; cultural theorists and archaeologists in anthropology departments; and analytic and Continental philosophers in philosophy departments.

That’s on page 99.  So now you know.

My general point, of course, is that tracking the party registrations of professors tells you relatively little about their intellectual commitments as professors.  But the argument about left-liberals disagreeing with poststructuralist Marxists is a lousy argument, precisely because it doesn’t address conservatives’ complaints that the “diversity” in college faculties consists of a diversity of “left” positions.  And that, dear friends and demanding readers, is why I didn’t make that argument!  I’m sorry for giving Professor Wolfe any impression that I did.

But some good might come of this little misunderstanding in the end, because from this point onward, whenever you run into someone saying, “Michael Bérubé says that there is no liberal bias on campus because the anthropology department includes left-liberals and poststructuralist Marxists, and therefore Michael Bérubé is either a knave or a gull,” you’ll know they haven’t read the book! It’s that simple! 

For example, Wolfe’s line about anthropology departments has been picked up by conservative writer Mark Judge, who writes:

Berube pointing to the “diversity” between left-liberals and poststructuralists [sic] Marxists isn’t exactly an advertisement for a comprehensive and diverse education. . . .  Berube admits that universities are liberal reeducation camps; furthermore, when he does offer a defense, Wolfe pounces, writing that it “hardly addresses the widespread perception that [university courses in] cultural anthropology [have] little room for those who might believe that America’s presence in a third-world country might bring about some good.”

And Judge’s review has been commended in turn by Erin O’Connor at ACTA Online, who calls it a piece of “thoughtful criticism” and proposes it as a standard for future discussions:

those with the most immediate cachet are not always those with the best arguments, and Berube doesn’t draw anywhere near as much thoughtful criticism as he might. An exception may be found in Mark Judge’s review of Alan Wolfe’s New York Times review of Berube’s book, which, Judge notes, loses its analytical edge in the inexplicable manner of so many of Berube’s admirers. . . .

Though Berube’s admirers are already pre-emptively mocking readers who might disagree with his argument that there is no problem with political bias in higher education, those readers should still read the book, and they should still formulate and publish opinions on his arguments. Defenders of the academic status quo don’t want to be argued with, and they go to great lengths to shut down such argument in advance. But that’s all the more reason for substantive debate.

(And yes, that hyperlink in O’Connor’s post will lead you to Chris Clarke’s graphic novel “version” of my book—about which all I can say is, if Chris was trying pre-emptively to mock readers who might disagree with my argument that there is no problem with political bias in higher education, he will fail, fail miserably, partly because I don’t make that argument, and partly because at least one conservative critic is already wise to the fact that I do.)

Now, once upon a time, smart conservatives didn’t go around applauding the “thoughtful reviews” of people who hadn’t bothered to read the material ostensibly under review, while casting aspersions on “defenders of the academic status quo” who “go to great lengths to shut down such argument in advance.” I am deeply nostalgic for those days myself.  Accordingly, I’m all for substantive debate; I second Professor O’Connor’s call for it, and I thank her for recommending my book to people who might disagree with some aspects of it.  But I’ll say this much in advance—if someone tries to give me a hard time for my defense of left-liberals and poststructuralist Marxists in anthropology departments, and my refusal even to entertain the possibility that these professors are shutting out the “America can bring about some good in third world countries” faction of job-seeking anthropology Ph.D.s, then I’m just going to keep quiet for a bit and wait for a substantive debate with someone who disagrees with arguments that I actually make. 

After all, as I argue in chapter six, the valuable thing about the Habermas-Lyotard debate is that it compels us to think about how best to engage in debates with people with whom we fundamentally disagree.  And as I note at the end of chapter four, you’re free to disagree with me about that, too.

Posted by Michael on 09/28 at 02:45 PM
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