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December 10, 2004

Crooked Timber

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

No posting from me today (so far anyway) because I've been having a good (if long-winded) time over at Crooked Timber. The brainy and genial John Holbo posted about academia, lefties, conservatives, and diversity; along with a zillion other people, I left a comment on his posting. John posted anew; and along with a zillion other people I left another comment.

The first back-and-forth is here; the second is here. Many thanks to John Holbo -- I'm looking forward to more such.



posted by Michael at December 10, 2004


Good to see you mixing it up over there at CT. I used to hang out there, but it eventually just started to sound like the grown-ups in Charlie Brown cartoons (Wha-WHA-wha-WHA!), so I stopped stopping by. Funny thing was, some of the stuff you were bring up was one of the reasons I concluded I was coming at things from such a different perpective that there was no point in continuing to contribute (which, I suspect, is part of the same dynamic behind the dearth of conservatives in academia).

It was a discussion about animal rights, where they were trying to come up with a "legal theory" behind laws against animal cruelty (since, if you don't grant them legal status, preventing animal cruelty makes as much sense as preventing cruelty to a toaster.) Much strenuous debate ensued, and I meekly offered that maybe you didn't need such a "theory"; maybe if the citizens in a democratic society don't like people to beat their dogs with sticks, then they can go ahead and pass laws that enforce that preference. I was quickly assured that if you just let people pass any old law they wanted with no theory, fa' pete's sake, why soon they'd be forcing women to walk down the streets in Burkas! (I kid you not.) I started to lose interest soon after that...

Posted by: jimbo on December 11, 2004 02:34 AM

I agree with what he (i.e., Jimbo) said.

The guys at Crooked Timber strike me as people with far too much job security. (And too much time on their hands.)

It's funny how resistant they are to, um, the experience of everyday reality as lived by most people.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 11, 2004 05:34 AM

Sorry, MB, missed an important point: I thought you held up your end of the discussion admirably, and tried manfully to jolly them out of their intellectual rut. I don't think you succeeded, but you held your part of the battlefield heroically.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 11, 2004 06:14 AM

What FvB said. My first thought was, looking at the length of post and comments: Are these people at work? One thing to type in 3 paragraphs between two phone calls and another - writing dissertation draft (and often a first draft,i.o.w.- a mess)

I too think you're a hero for trying to introduce some sense of reality into their heads - and I admire your tone, Michael. But surely you should know by now it's no use?
It is not so much habit of theoritizing of everything I dislike in academic types but collectivist spirit, so to speak. Notice how quickly they form gangs and "communities"? Easier to poke on stranger with fresh things to say (especially if he doesn't speak the slang)
Beetle in the anthill.
[title of scifi Strugatski's novel] Was it worth it?

Posted by: Tatyana on December 11, 2004 08:49 AM

Sorry for double entry, but I just read great posts in New Criterion on a relative topic.
Great illustration.
I especially loved the last paragraph of the linked James Panero' post, that describes his return to Benton to give a talk:

"Except for the boorish Whitney, almost everyone welcomes the attention of a review, however critical. But at a progressive school like Benton, where all the important truths of life have been agreed upon beforehand and heaven is fast on its way to earth, no one wants to hear a peep....Whispering, cigarette-smoking shadows, the embryo dons slipped into the night, surely never to make eye contact with me again. They have their priorities at Benton, and criticism isnít one of them. Doubtless they wondered where I went wrong.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 11, 2004 09:23 AM

Jimbo -- That's a good description, tks. I occasionally peek in over at CT -- can't seem to resist, although it's probably something I should learn to resist. I do like Chris Bertram a lot; he's open and respectful. He may disagree but he doesn't go into name-calling mode. But it's weird, isn't it? The compulsion to dream up huge fortresses of theory to, I guess, give a little substance and background to your preferences? It's weird too that they don't register how weird such behavior might look to the rest of the world. They also don't seem to realize that the rest of the world might reject their conclusions simply because ... well, the people doing all the theorizing look so weird. I always feel at CT like I'm backstage with a debate team that's getting ready to take the stage; I never feel like I'm among human beings trying to sift and sort (and, to be honest, fake) their way through life in a decent and rewarding way. I really should quit visiting, though. Still, I wonder if there's a percentage of CT visitors who might respond to more open ways of seeing things, and more open ways of thinking. Any hunches about this? Or are they all rabid maniacs doing their overintellectualized best to stoke each other's fires?

FvB -- Thanks. Funny line about job security. Nothing quite like the experience of going down in flames. When it's unavoidable, I try to do it with a little style and brio, but I probably fail at that too. Still, why not.

Tatyana -- That's a really good point about their tendency to form gangs. (I wonder if it's related to their love of dreaming up theories in some way?...) I remember how startled I'd be over the years among leftie friends. I'd bring up something I thought was neat or provocative, and suddenly furious eyes -- everyone's eyes -- would be upon me. First, castigation; then, threats of expulsion. A lot of bright and generally affable people (who, unfortunately -- curse of my life -- I share a lot of interests with). But out of nowhere they'd metamorphose into thunderingly punitive cult members. I guess by now I've been thoroughly expelled ... er, what's that word for being expelled from a cult or a tribe? My mind's failing me this morning. Almost a technical religious term? Excommunicated ... But there's another one I like better. Anyway, by ow I've been excommunicated. I don't say this entirely without regrets, but I do like life as an excommunicant (ie., as a free person) a whole lot better than life as a cult member. Not that I knew at the time I was in residence with a cult ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2004 10:37 AM

Gosh...I've tried twice to read your links, and I'm so bored by the third papagraph (not yours--theirs. I can't even get to yours) I simply can't continue. I can't even determine if they are obnoxious. What happened to the lost art of conversation? Why do people not even try to be...interesting? Forget about "not wierd." Wierd is OK if it's interesting. They might do better in convincing people that they aren't boring to death.

Posted by: annette on December 11, 2004 11:08 AM

Michael -

I think the word you're going for is "shunned".

Posted by: jimbo on December 11, 2004 12:10 PM

Annete -- That seems like a very sensible response!

Jimbo -- That's it, tks. Quakers, or Shakers, or something...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 11, 2004 12:15 PM

PS---I tried the second back-and-forth. Definitely more interesting. But I stand by my point--it took a more interesting conversationalist, even provocateur---to get anything interesting out of that original post.

Y'know, the fact that lefty academics would need to be convinced that there is still a reason to inform students of the conservative thought process, even if the lefties think it's dumb, seems to me! That would be like deciding that Shakespeare was "dumb" and therefore never teaching him. Even if you believed it, (a) he's too important a figure to skip historically and (b) if he's really so "dumb" why hide him? Why wouldn't students naturally reach that conclusion, too?

Posted by: annette on December 11, 2004 02:55 PM


I like the word "anathema" to describe what you referred to as "thoroughly expelled". Being anathematized is like being excommunicated, but with an extra aspect of being cursed by God as well.

Naughty you.

Posted by: PatrickH on December 12, 2004 11:26 PM

"Anathematized" -- that's an excellent one, tks. I was thinking it might go well with "calumniated."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2004 11:40 PM

The right word is purged out.
Out of Party Lines.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 12, 2004 11:46 PM

Great posts!
"OK with me if you find my story uninteresting. But why not find it symptomatic of something? Namely, that the politicization of lit studies probably drove a number of people out of the field who might have had something to contribute. In my case: I'm relatively apolitical and yet have a very pluralistic view of the arts. Can you argue that my point of view is well-represented in lit departments in today's academy? It probably isn't. And if you're for diversity, why wouldn't you find the absence of such a point of view from the universities Ö I don't know. Distressing? Perhaps even interesting and problematic?"

What I've never understood either is why the people who insisted on politicising everything were so dumb about politics at the most basic level. I'd hazard a guess that most ordinary people in Western liberal democracies, whether they were centre left or centre right, whether they voted Republican or Democrat, Labour or Conservative, Social Democrat or Christian Democrat, didn't have a passion for Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao or Khomeini, whereas most of the Capital T Theorists have worshipped at the shrine of at least one of the above, and yet we're supposed to bow down to their superior political wisdom.

Posted by: J.Cassian on December 13, 2004 06:09 AM

Ohmygod, what a story.
Theoretizing own life [death?] first - to the extreme.
And getting too insulated in his tiny nishe too, don't you think?

Two characteristics of an academic, with the label bad for your health.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 13, 2004 02:14 PM

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