Below the fold you’ll find a copy of the paper I presented today. As I’ve said before, when I write a talk, I write a talk. I don’t write an essay that just so happens to be read aloud. I revise based on what I hear when I read aloud, so as to avoid speaking sentences that can’t be parsed on the fly like, say, this one:
Tina told Mark that John thought Pauline knew what Sam had planned for Justine, but Pauline insisted she had no idea John believed that, nor whether the look Justine exchanged with Mark at work yesterday meant that Tina had inadvertently revealed Sam’s trap before John and his brother Adam could spring it.
My shorthand’s pretty straight-forward: ALL CAPS means emphasis, en dash short pause, em dash longer pause, &c. Some of the sentences are, yes, ungrammatical when written down—but when read aloud, they make more sense. (There are complicated linguistic reasons for this vis-a-vis the relation of written language to spoken, and one day I might get into them, but that day ain’t today.) That said, my talk:
I’ve taken the title of this panel–”Blogging and the Academy”–a little literally, but I’ve heard and delivered a number of talks about the role of blogging in the academy–about its intellectual utility and its community-building potential–but haven’t heard much discussion about what impact, if any, the public presence of academics has had on the general level of online discourse. With that in mind, here are the two types of academic bloggers I won’t be discussing here today: the first is best embodied by former UCI economist Duncan Black, a.k.a. Atrios, whose blog Eschaton is, by any of the various unreliable measures of online popularity—links, hits, page views, &c.—one of the most powerful voices out there; the second comes in the form of Thers, the pseudonymous proprieter of Whiskey Fire and an English professor at a small liberal arts college.
Duncan Black I’m avoiding because at this point, Eschaton is little more than a link-aggregator, with his longest recent post logging in at a robust 94 words; Thers I’m avoiding because he deliberately lives up to his namesake, Thersites, and as such is blunt, surly, and coarse; the verbal equivalent of Homer’s powerfully ugly hunchback whose satirical mode is, as Laurence Sterne noted, “of a pelting kind . . . as black as the very ink ’tis wrote with.” Which is only to say, he responds to people like Jonah Goldberg with deserved venom.
If you don’t know who Jonah Goldberg is, consider yourself lucky—or formerly lucky, as I’m about to introduce you to him. He’s the son of conservative icon Lucianne Goldberg, who first made her mark on the national consciousness spying on the McGovern campaign for Nixon, but who is now best known for having advised Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky and deliver the tapes to Ken Starr. Writing in defense of his mother for publications beholden to her, Jonah Goldberg landed a twice-weekly column in the National Review and a place of prominence at two of the most influential conservative sites on the internet: Townhall and the National Review’s in-house blog, The Corner. His meretricious—sorry, MERITORIOUS rise to the status of “respectable pundit”—he’s done the Sunday-morning circuit, and regularly appears on Glenn Beck and Neil Cavuto’s fair-and-balanced programs as an expert on, um . . . well, he appears as an expert, professing, with the over-eagerness of an earnest seeker or arrogant neophyte, professing academic expertise in matters of American and intellectual history.
Now, if he’s an earnest seeker–if, that is, he’s someone outside the professorial ranks with an abiding interest in American and intellectual history, he should be the sort of person people like me try to engage. By “people like me,” I simply mean “people who don’t, like Duncan Black, limit themselves to short bursts of quotidian fact; and don’t, like Thers, pelt ideological opponents with insults as black as Laurence Sterne’s ink; but simply people who try to share something of the academic ethos, the academic habit of mind, with the general public.” Despite my introduction, Goldberg COULD be an enthusiast. In fact, just this week, a grad student here at Irvine, Brandon Gordon, wrote him an email, which Goldberg immediately posted online–no breach of etiquette there–and indicated he appreciated its “civil, if scolding, tone.”
But he didn’t buy any of the argument. Not that he addressed its substance, mind you. Quote: “[W]e can debate economic philosophy another time,” he wrote. Gordon’s analysis “falls apart . . . in his political analysis,” he wrote. Then he blandished a few Republican talking points—ACORN! Jesse Jackson! Hollywood!–for a couple of sentences. As I think should be obvious, Goldberg wasn’t interested in engaging Gordon intellectually; nor, from the looks of it, was he interested in seriously engaging him at all.
And yet, the next day, Brandon received an email notification: “Jonah Goldberg added you as a friend on Facebook. We need to confirm that you know Jonah in order for you to be friends.”
Needless to say, Goldberg’s offer was declined. But it does, in its awkward way, illustrate a basic point, which is that the imprimatur of a doctorate still means something, is still valued, as are the standards of academic honesty that accompanies it. We–being academics who put our ideals above careerism and venture into the digital wilds under our own name—we might we be able to raise the level of the discourse, disabuse a skeptical public of the stereotype of ivory tower elitism? Probably not.
Goldberg might’ve offered a hand to the grad student he’d just slapped down, but he’s not interested in the evidentiary and argumentative standards we, as academics, value. If we want a co-equal audience, we’re going to have to cultivate it ourselves, because Goldberg and his ilk don’t want to internalize our values—they want to appropriate our authority, our tone, and if we let them—if we allow their imitations to go unchallenged, the expert on the Great Depression on the evening news (or, as I just learned this morning, the History Channel) won’t be my co-blogger at The Edge of the American West, Eric Rauchway—it’ll be Jonah Goldberg. A brief example of why, exactly, this is worrisome:
Wanted, he wrote, in big bold letters, Herbert Spencer Expert:
Quote: I’m working on a chapter of the book which requires me to read a lot about and by Herbert Spencer. There’s simply no way I can read all of it, nor do I really need to. [NOR DO I REALLY NEED TO] But if there are any real experts on Spencer out there — regardless of ideological affiliation — I’d love to ask you a few questions in case I’m missing something.
Because I’m sort of a Spencer expert—my dissertation was on non-Darwinian evolutionary theories, most of which were heavily indebted to Spencer and his brand of neo-Lamarckian thought—I responded. And so he sent me a few drafty passages that partook of the worst sort of anti-Spencerian slanders. Which, incidentally, made it into the book almost unchanged, quote: “[Spencer's] interpretation of evolutionary theory reinforced his view that people should be left alone.” Needless to say, for a man whose body of work was too vast for Goldberg to traverse himself, Spencer wasn’t all that complicated.
OR that Goldberg was oversimplifying things, as I gently—in true teacherly mode—informed him. I cited his work on altruism, some of the letters he exchanged with Huxley on the subject, and provided him a brief, focused bibliography that would disabuse him of the idea that Spencer opposed intervention on principle.
He responded, haughtily, that other people said Spencer thought people were best left alone, and that he was a classical, STRESS, an ALL CAPS CLASSICAL liberal.
I replied, politely, that those other people were wrong.
He then inquired as to WHY DID THEY WRITE IT THEN?
When I told him that Spencer’s the most misunderstood thinker of the 19th Century, he told me I hadn’t helped him at all and that I shouldn’t write back.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: scholars, professional and amateur alike, can have legitimate disagreements, and maybe this is one of those times. After all, he’d written of his then-forthcoming book, quote, that it “isn’t like Dinesh [D'Souza]’s latest book. It isn’t like any Ann Coulter book. It isn’t what the Amazon description says or what the Economist claims it is [o]r what Frank Rich imagines it is [but] a very serious, thoughtful argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care.”
In such detail. Or with such care. Said the man who admitted he needed, quote, “to read a lot about and by Herbert Spencer [but] there was simply no way [he could] read all of it, NOR [DID HE] REALLY NEED TO.
He was roundly, and rightly, mocked for his hubris, but the laughter would’ve abated had his book not proven, as A.E. Housmann wrote of Friedrich Jacob, that Goldberg’s “trade is one which requires, that it may be practiced in perfection, two qualifications only: ignorance of language and abstinence from thought.”
The ignorance of language is right there in his title, Liberal Fascism, which proves that words are no different than people: just because you put two next to each other doesn’t mean they’re actually related; the abstinence from thought is, well, EVERYWHERE, but begins with the subtitle, The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Even had he not confused Mussolini for an American, the unseriousness of his argument would outed itself quickly. I quote:
“Animal rights advocates correctly note that animal rights activism was a major concern in pre-Nazi Germany . . . [b]ut the fact that these conventionally leftist views were held by Nazis suggests that Nazism isn’t as alien to mainstream progressive thought as some would have us believe.”
Again, I know what you’re thinking: why should reputable scholars waste our time with people who don’t know from the fallacy of the undistributed middle? Short answer: because Goldberg’s more popular than we are. Liberal Fascism’s sold over 200,000 copies—that’s hardcover, the paperback’s not due until 2009—and its popularity can be attributed to what he’s stolen from us; namely, the arguments of countless scholars whose work Goldberg has grossly misrepresented. Movement conservatives read Ann Coulter, but they don’t cite her as an authority because she has none; neither does Goldberg, but he’s written a book with—as any acolyte of his will tell you again, and again, and again—with over 600 footnotes!
And FOOTNOTES, I don’t need to tell you, are our thing.
But if the only people the public sees employing footnotes do so expressly to dissemble—to cherry-pick their sources and practice serial misprison—and not unconsciously, as Harold Bloom would have it—if this is all the public sees of scholarship, our reputation suffers twice over: to Goldberg and the movement conservatives who read him, we’re diminished by the perpetuation of the idea that we’re ivory tower elites. As Liberal Fascism’s jacket copy reads, quote, “The quintessential liberal fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade-school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.”
And to anyone who cares to check Goldberg’s footnotes, we’re diminished by association—once someone sees how easy it is to deceive through citation—through 600 CITATIONS—they’re liable to lose trust in the scholarly apparatus itself. This isn’t a responsibility we can abdicate, I don’t think.