Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Hunting of the Snark

In a piece called "Snark and scholarship," Schussman takes me to task for my post lamenting the liberal academics who are so enamored of Michael Moore in spite of the filmmaker's deceptions, which they readily acknowledge.

Taking the learned professoriate down a peg or two is a favorite hobby of some, as I guess there is great satisfaction in proving them to be out of touch, incompetent, and otherwise ignorant of the real world.

When I was a young journalist in the early '80s, I lived in a crumbling World War I-era apartment block near Bryn Mawr College (yes, it's possible to live on the cheap on the Main Line, but it's not pleasant). My companions were struggling Villanova students and other guys trying to make it in their first jobs. We talked and debated and learned from one another, but mostly we caroused.

One of the places we sometimes ducked into when we had a little money was a popular bar/pizzeria. But the place also was home to a young philosophy professor (he might have been a teaching grad student) from Bryn Mawr. He wore a nattier cut of tweed, and he took his attractive groupies there and held court. He would buttonhole some unsuspecting dolt (i.e. a guy like me), and pose an innocent-sounding bit of Socratic trickery to him, then intellectually skewer the young man's answer while the groupies cooed and grinned appreciatively.

Perhaps he was working off bile for some teasing he had taken from the common sort as a third-grader. I rather doubt it. Even so, I never knew a man I more wanted to slug. He was the intellectual equivalent of the bully bikers in a "Billy Jack" movie. When I have tangled with academics over the years, his face always comes to mind.

I dont think there is any kind of strong case that this characterizes the broad world of academics.

Probably not. I never said it did. I said it was so in my experience. But I don't have contact with that world on a regular basis. Schussman seems to, so I'll take his word for it. I do, however, have contact with the academics who dive into certain public debates about divisive current events. And even if they're an unrepresentative minority, their collective impact is disproportionate. And their words and methods are worth parsing.

Academics maintain their cachet in the public mind, I think, because we presume these are people who habitually read widely and think carefully. We expect them to weigh thoughts before speaking, and to investigate claims before asserting them, and to not claim expertise beyond what they genuinely have. Ne supra crepidam sutor judicaret.

I used an example from my Online Etymology Dictionary experience, in which I found some gender-studies professors repeating a fairly transparent Internet urban legend about the origin of the word "faggot." It's impossible to prove a negative, but the story they were repeating violated all sorts of common sense rules of language, and it gets no credence in any reputable etymology source.

Schussman speculates that the "etymological example has, I think, more complexity than he allows." I'd be curious to know what I overlooked.

But he moves from this proposition to the idea that academics are essentially corrupt, supporting arguments that they know to be false, a jump that only seems possible by misreading or misrepresenting the evidence at hand.

Maybe my standards are too high. What I said is, "it seems to me that academics, of all people, ought to be committed to rigorous inquiry after true origins, rather than blind clinging to the paps of false idols." And I decried the tendency in academe to embrace false things for what is seen as a higher purpose.

A politician might do that. We expect him to do that. But that seems, to me, to be an illegitimate choice for someone whose opinion carries weight precisely because he or she is assumed to be the kind of person who doesn't do that kind of thing.

Schussman accuses me of "eliding the most significant point of Todd Gitlin's review of Fahrenheit 9/11.

He says I call it a "laudatory review." That's not correct. I call it an "essentially laudatory review." Gitlin laments much about Moore's methods, but he essentially praises the movie for its own sake, as well as for its opinion-shaping role in modern America. Schussman reads the review as saying, "Moore's film is useful, but he's an ass." I read it as, "More's an ass, but his film is useful."

Split the difference, if you like, but consider this line from Gitlin: "Don’t some means justify some ends." No, they don't, I say, if you're talking about a film-maker hammering a complex and delicate world crisis into a vaudeville hook so he can un-elect a president he despises, damn the consequences.

And no, they don't, if you're talking about someone who draws his authority from his association with the university system, writing about the democratic virtues of a work that he knows distorts the truth and passes off deception as reality.

An academic's reputation is based in large part on his or her commitment to honesty. We read their books because we trust that they've done honest research. Gitlin, and I think Schussman, is a sociologist, a discipline that regards itself as a science. It takes the Greek -logia into its name, and involves scientific methods. In that system, there is no room for ideology to trump research and inquiry. To see an academic embrace such a view makes me suspect anything I might read by that person that touches on this topic.

And if Gitlin really is saying, "the only way to get truth across to modern Americans is to lie to them," he's doing more damage to his own reputation than I possibly could.

When Gitlin celebrates Moore as the "most compelling, useful filmmaker of the 21st century," it is with a "so far" and a great sigh of regret that it takes unscrupulous demagoguery to generate attention to issues that are critically important -- for those on the right or the left.

And in that passage Gitlin was paraphrasing André Gide on Victor Hugo -- a novelist talking about a poet. And it seems to escape both Gitlin and Schussman that there is a difference between fiction and current events, and that the same standards might not apply. "Art is a lie that tells the truth." But Moore's film is presented as a documentary. (In fact, AP, calls it a "newsreel").

Moore's demagoguery is a positive good, to Gitlin, not for its own sake, but because it converges with Gitlin's personal politcs. He doesn't justify all political demagoguery as a necessity in modern America -- he damns it when he finds it from the other side, as a corrupting influence. Compare Gitlin on Moore:

"Moore makes thunderous propaganda, all right, but it’s our propaganda, at last, and much of it is right. He’s got more in his arsenal than cheap shots. He’s a not–so–secret weapon against the bully propaganda machine called the White House, which sold a war –- a war –- on delusional grounds. With jokes, outtakes, hissable villains, the mother of a dead American soldier from Flint, Michigan – a woman who could make Donald Rumsfeld weep – and rhetorical questions, and insinuating music, and bomb damage footage, and whatever else it takes, Moore gets people who don’t follow antiwar websites to see Iraqi casualties, usually invisible and countless, not to mention a bereaved mother, at length."

"... Moore is the master demagogue an age of demagoguery made. He’s an impresario of spectacle and he corrals people who don’t pay attention to news to pay attention to him and his facts, his footage, his badinage, his sarcasm, his factoid detonations, all of it, indiscriminately, smashing up the complacency that watched George Bush seize power in the most powerful nation in history."

... to Gitlin on Fox News:

The commercial motive dovetails beautifully with a politics of muscularity and resentment. Over this is laid an objectivity scrim, the veil of "we report, you decide." But it's hard to believe that any of FOX's 1.2 million daily prime-time viewers is fooled. The brashness and raucousness speak for themselves, as if much of the shows were broadcast from the middle-school lunchroom. The phony objectivity is the equivalent of Bill O'Reilly's phony populism ....

"Throughout the day, FOX's formula is consistent: attitude. Its anthem is all percussion, all the time. Even its weather report blares, and its morning show is raucous -- a frat-house alternative to the other channels' goody-two-shoes presentation. Real guys and gals know how the world works. (Corollary: Only a wuss doesn't.) Goodness (Team Bush) faces off against Badness (Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il) as surely as brawling Sean Hannity mauls mild Alan Colmes. Animal House flies the flag. Show us a problem and we'll show you that they are responsible.

[We Disport. We Deride. It's all attitude, all the time at FOX News.]

Back in May, I lamented British climatologists praising the global warming disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow." I take climate change from human activity very seriously -- I argue with conservative friends who want to dismiss it as kooky environmentalism. But to me, scientists only undercut their authority when they praise as "important" a movie that telescopes tens of thousands of years of climate change into a week and delivers up impossible consequences.

And the more the academic community and the policy-makers align themselves with Hollywood junk science, the more they play into the "loony left" trap that discredits them in the eyes of many people who might otherwise accept them. Yet that is likely to be the result in many minds when scientists, given the chance to draw the line between legitimate work and lurid entertainment, choose to embrace the latter as a teaching tool.

The movie so clearly is based on junk science that won't it harm, rather than help, the cause of serious scientists trying to educate the public about a real but complicated issue? But evidently the real scientists have given up and they're counting on special effects to win people over. Good luck. That was before Memorial Day. Now it's late July. Perhaps now the public is concerned about mad scientists with eight robotic arms and journalists who can swing from webs above New York.

Doug manages to avoid being accountable to his own early premise, that argumentation is based on more than abstract qualification. It also takes an appreciation of precision of meaning and an allowance for complexity, but he leaves neither for Gitlin.

Ah, curses, dismissed again. Flashback to Gullifty's in Bryn Mawr. I appreciate the attempt to hold me to the highest standard. But I was writing about the standard that top academics are held to (rightly, I think) in exchange for their authoritative voices, their book sales, their pundit's chairs on NPR. Yet it seems to me Gitlin has descended into journalism and polemics with his piece on Moore (which is painted more in praise than in criticism, if you ask me). Moore's propaganda, which falls far short of rigorous argument, seems to pass muster with Schussman and Gitlin. Then perhaps they will smile upon my polemics, which, simplistic though they be, at least are not wrapped in the deceits of propaganda.

If I, as a mere journalist, can disown certain polemicists who happen to agree with me on certain issues because I find their tactics unworthy of discourse -- Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh -- is it too much to ask academics to stand up for the truth for its own sake?