Tuesday, 13 June 2006

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Idle Hands vs. Damnable Complicity As a corollary to the saga still raging below, I want to write about one of my students. (I'll keep it general.) She's writing about a local "advocacy group" devoted to a cause which any reasonable person would consider commendable. The first draft of her article outlined a series of meetings in which the members of this group talked about themselves and their spiritual development. No mention of the commendable cause which ostensibly unites them. In her second draft she added an account of another meeting no different from the first, as well as a conference which this group had organized. The conference celebrated the publication of a memoir by a prominent academic in which she talked about her experiences. The proceedings consisted of little more than all the members of the advocacy group talking about their experiences too. Everyone talked about themselves and formed what they called a "sisterhood." Still no mention of the cause which ostensibly unites them. My student arrived at her mandatory final conference with a horrified look on her face. She sat down and handed me yet another draft. "Before you read it, I want to say something." "Yes?" "It's boring. I sat there writing and I couldn't stop thinking about how boring it is. They don't do anything. They meet to discuss [a cause which any reasonable person would consider commendable] but all they do is talk about themselves and how they have to heal themselves before they can do anything else. But they never do anything else. I wish I had chosen a different subject. I can't believe I chose this one. I'm so stupid." "No you're not. [Long explanation about artificial crunch of the quarter system on conventional research and reportage and how it forces students to run not necessarily with the best but "the best available" idea.] But I see something interesting in this topic." "Really?" "Why not point out the difference between their words and their actions?" "I don't want them to hate me. They let me into their lives and I don't want to betray their trust." "Remember that Janet Malcolm quotation I read in class? 'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.' You're going to betray them. There's no way not to. They know you're there using them, and you know they're using you. The thing you have to remember is that you have a commitment to the truth, not to further inflating their already bloated image of themselves. You're not their PR department." "I know, I know. But they really want to help people." "And are they helping any?" "No, no, not really." "What if you point that out? It may shatter their image of themselves, but what about the victims [of the practice the commendable...
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On Being Laughably Correct; or, Eric Lott and a Befuddling Identitarian Critique Academic advocacy has evolved little in decades since Joan Didion wrote The White Album. Issues of grave import outside academia still become the occasion for "an amiable evasion of routine, of institutional anxiety, of the tedium of the academic calendar. Meanwhile the white radicals [can] see themselves, on an investment of virtually nothing, as urban guerrillas" (39). The more things change blah blah blah. Page-by-damning-page, Eric Lott's The Disap ing Liberal Intellectual reminds us of this self-aggrandizing insularity. So low are the stakes of Lott's argument against the "centering" of academic politics that he can barely be bothered to muster any real sustained critique of centrist politics. In its stead he flings superficial insults against those who practice what he considers Popular Front-style compromising. He calls it "Boomer Liberalism" [.pdf]: This powerful new liberalism, which fuses a newfound Popular Front sensibility to a crotchety dismissal of new social movements (particularly race-based ones), now confronts us as a force in dire need of an antiwhite, antistatist critique. Um, Eric? Stop with the bitter click-click-clicking already. I know that's unfair. But I'm merely borrowing a page from Lott's book. He dismisses a conference at at the University of Virginia—which with dated wit he dubs "Rortypalooza"—on the basis of the color of its attendees: "Women and people of color from across the country were, for all intents and purposes, represented in the singular person of Spivak, the conference's designated scourge." Am I to be blamed for turning his own fine-tuned argument against him? For someone who wrote so compellingly about blackface in Love and Theft—a man whose bullshit detector is second-to-none called it "one of those rare artifacts that is as meticulous a piece of historical scholarship as it is an intellectually fluent work of cultural theory"—the lack of nuance in this article is appalling. An undergraduate could turn his arguments against him with ease. (You've no doubt already nailed him for criticizing the logic of the Popular Front from a position predicated upon it.) A quick look at his diction in "Boomer Liberalism"—the article doubles as the introduction to the new volume—betrays the same insecurities Didion diagnosed in '78. Those who partake of the centrist groupthink are: "acolytes turned normative nationalists" "common dreamers who take center stage" "Robespierre-is-everywhere soothsayers" "superb if color-blind historians-cum-antimulticulturalists" "long-lost radical journalists" "backward-looking post-Situationalist conjurers" "lesser-evilist Clintonian historians of populism and communism" "New Democrat nostalgics" "undrooping denouncers of racial self-definition" "state romancers" Not only are all those people all those things, all those people are those things in the same sentence. With one sweep of his hand Lott dismisses all those who "in differing ways, lament the rise of identity politics and the decline of true populism, common dreams, or any other euphemism for class that can be conscripted to serve the interests of a white male cadre badly in need of a rationale." As Robert Boynton writes in his review of The Disap ring Liberal Intellectual and David S. Brown's excellent Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, Lott's...

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