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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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